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Dust in the wind, Part III: Western ND counties are budgeting millions to keep dust at bay

A flatbed truck speeds down a rural Dickinson road May 24, leaving a cloud of dust behind it.

Western North Dakota has been getting a big splash of Mother Nature's dust control -- in the form of more than 2 inches of rain in the few days of this past week, according to the National Weather Service -- but that doesn't mean it won't be an issue when the rain stops and the prairie dries.

When harvesting his fields last fall, Mike Schollmeyer noticed his yield sensor dropping the closer he got to oil field roads on his property.

"My combine has a pretty nice yield monitor and computer system in it and it lets me know exactly where my fields are doing well and where they need improvement," the Dunn County farmer said. "Green is excellent yield and red is pretty poor yield. And you can see that change from green to red as you get closer to that road."

While there is a slight drop in yield near the edge of a field due to higher tractor traffic, it's nothing compared to that caused by scoria dust coming up of the road.

"This is just a dust issue," Schollmeyer said.

But he noticed the biggest impact when the wells were being fracked -- with an average 2,500 trucks driving down a road to complete the process. Once the exploration phase is complete, the truck traffic, and therefore major dust issues, drops dramatically.

"I can document that we do have an economic loss because of this," Schollmeyer said. "Really, the question is, 'Who's paying for it?' It's the farmer that has to pay for it. And if you have the misfortune of having a road going through your property, and that road is servicing two or three or four wells, you can have 10,000 trucks in a season going down one of these roads."

Over in neighboring McKenzie County, a place hit even harder by oil exploration, the county has budgeted $3.5 million for dust control, Operations Engineer Mike Dollinger said.

"There's lots of dust," Dollinger said. "Most of the majority of it is due to oil -- it's the heavy truck traffic."

The dust -- and the budget item -- wasn't there five years ago, Dollinger said.

The same goes for Dunn County's dust control -- which is budgeted for $2 million this year, County Auditor Tracey Dolezal previously told The Press.

"It affects everything," Dollinger said. "It affect the way the crops grow, the crops that are within a ¼ to ½ mile of the roads. It's in the houses, it's everywhere."

In Dunn County, Oxy and Marathon Oil regularly have representatives at County Commission meetings, Dolezal said.

Financially, oil companies aren't directly supporting dust control efforts in McKenzie County, Dollinger said.

"The oil companies are being taxed," Dollinger said. "And they figure their taxes are what should come back to us."

McKenzie County is expected to get $32.5 million back in oil impact funds.

It's not just the impact from dust that worries Schollmeyer, he has a few wells on his land and oil companies spray the pads with sterilant, which kills all plant life trying to grow on the scoria.

"If you get a drenching rain -- if you get an inch of rain in 10 minutes -- that scoria will actually run off into your field and then get deposited in your field," Schollmeyer said. "Now your field is contaminated with a sterilant."

He's had the Environmental Protection Agency out to check the soil, but has had issues proving that the contamination came from the oil pads.

"I don't own the mineral (rights) but I do own the surface and basically, you can't stop them from drilling, they can drill whether you want them to or not, but at least you should be able to tell them what kind of chemicals they can spray on your land," Schollmeyer said. "The oil companies can spray anything they want, even though it's your property."

If the companies used agricultural herbicides, like Round Up, the impact wouldn't be as devastating, Schollmeyer said.

"If they spray sterilants year after year after year on an oil site, how do they plan on putting that ground back in production 25 years from now?" Schollmeyer asked.

Calls to Oxy, Marathon, and Whiting Oil were not returned Thursday or Friday.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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