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Darrell Dorgan, Bismarck, Published January 11 2014

Letter: Oil boom’s ecological disaster

Economically, 2013 was a banner year in North Dakota. The oil industry generated one of the world’s hottest economies. But unless something happens quickly, it will also result in parts of the state becoming permanent ecological disaster areas.

The job of the State Health Department and other agencies is to protect the health and welfare of people who live here, not increase the profits of the oil industry. But it’s the latter not the former that seems to be the norm.

The Casselton, N.D., train derailment is a frightening example of the dangers of the fast pace of development. But there are other, more dangerous health consequences unless we halt the unregulated ecological disaster underway in oil country.

Cancer rates

We already have an abnormally high cancer rate because of radon, uranium mining tailings and nuclear fallout from open-air bomb testing in the 1950s. Cancer rates will escalate with the largely uncontrolled dumping of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals from oil drilling into waters and aquifers.

Some 75 tons of radioactive and toxic drilling waste is generated daily in western counties. Rules and regulations require radioactive waste above five picocuries be sent to an approved out-of-state dump site. That’s not happening. Some is being sent to an unlicensed site in Montana where aquifers drain into the Missouri River. The rest? No one in state government seems concerned.

Bags used to screen radioactive waste are found daily in ditches and even at the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Piles of radioactive waste are found along section lines and in fields. Eventually it all goes into the water you drink and the food you eat.

Argonne study

At the urging of the oil industry last year, the Health Department began working on guidelines that would allow an increase in the dumping of well-site waste with a higher radioactive level than now allowed. The study, and much of the data being used, was paid for by the industry, which would save millions by the change of requirements.

Following questions by the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition and the Dakota Resource Council, Health Department officials contracted with the Argonne National Laboratories to do another study, which should be completed this year.

Hundreds of sites

There are proposals to drill wells, and build new power lines and dumps near sites of incredible historic value. Recently, one state official suggested providing nominal protection for 20 such sites. Officials of the State Historical Society were not consulted, but at least three oil industry reps were on the committee, which violated the state’s once dynamic open meetings, open records laws. Twenty? There are hundreds of sites of historic value in the west that need protection.

Should this be a “One Time Harvest?” Should northwestern North Dakota become an industrial wasteland? Has it already?

Cost of prosperity

I’m happy that communities have been able to halt their 80-year decline and loss of people. But I’m embarrassed at the smell of virtually unregulated hydrocarbons that dominate once pristine air, flares that light the night, and the hardships of friends and relatives on fixed incomes who cannot afford the high rents prosperity has brought.

Prosperity also means an increase in crime, clogged highways, homelessness, pollution, high taxes to fund schools and roads, the loss of a cultural identity and, yes, rail disasters.

It does not have to be a “One Time Harvest.” We can regulate, drill and create jobs and prosperity. But without adequate protections, the only people who won’t be wearing lead shorts and drinking radioactive coffee in a few years are those who live out-of-state and pull down 50 percent of royalties generated by the boom.


Dorgan is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, and former executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame at Medora. He is award-wining broadcast news journalist who worked in commercial and public radio and television.