Darrell Dorgan: Oil should not be a ‘one-time harvest’
By Darrell Dorgan / Guest Columnist
Economically, 2013 was banner year in North Dakota. The oil industry provided us with one of the world’s hottest economies. But unless something happens quickly, it will also result in parts of the state becoming a permanent, ecological disaster area.
The job of the state Health Department and other state 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 recent Casselton train derailment provided a frightening example of the daily dangers because of the fast pace of development. But there are other, even more dangerous, health consequences we face unless we halt the unregulated ecological disaster underway in the Oil Patch.
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. The cancer rate will undoubtedly escalate with the largely uncontrolled dumping of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals from oil drilling in northwestern North Dakota waterways and aquifers.
There are 75 tons of radioactive and toxic drilling waste being generated daily in the western part of the state. Rules and regulations require radioactive waste above 5 picocuries be sent to an approved dump site out-of-state. That’s not happening. Some is being sent to an unlicensed site in Montana where the aquifers drain into the Missouri River. The rest? The site has been open for a year-and-a-half; 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 also found along section lines, in fields and eventually it all goes into the water you drink and the food you eat.
At the urging of the oil industry last year, the Health Department began working on new 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 being paid for by the oil 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 in 2014.
Will the new guidelines — rumored to more than triple the present limits — be issued before the Argonne Study is completed and comments provided by the public? No one seems to know.
County commissions in McLean and Mountrail counties recently said “no” to new dump sites for toxic waste in their counties. Questions are now being raised in Williams County because it’s unclear who has authority to approve or say no to local siting. The approval process is likely to become a major issue in the next legislative session and it’s highly likely approval will end up with the state and the oil industry.
There are also proposals to drill wells, new power lines and dumps near sites of incredible historic value. Recently, one state official suggested providing nominal protection for nearly 20 such sites. Officials of the State Historical Society were not consulted but at least three oil industry reps were on the committee which clearly violated the state’s once dynamic open meetings, open records laws. Twenty? There are clearly hundreds of sites of historic value in western North Dakota that need protection.
In the 1970s, the state, with help from Rural Electric Cooperatives, passed some of the toughest strip mine reclamation laws in the country. We did so over the vociferous objects of the national coal industry but, with knowledge, land was worth saving, clean air and heritage was worth protecting.
We are now faced with decimation of land, historic sites and safety standards with no elected officials willing to lead a discussion on what the future will be. Should this be a “one-time harvest?” Should northwestern North Dakota to be allowed to become an industrial wasteland? Has it already?
I’m happy our 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 and flares that light the night, and the extreme hardships of friends and relatives on fixed incomes who cannot afford the high rents prosperity has brought to some.
That prosperity also means a dramatic increase in crime, clogged highways, homelessness, pollution, higher taxes to fund schools, roads, the loss of a cultural identity and, yes, rail disasters.
Oil industry officials and Health Department officials will tell you the current 5 picocurie level for radioactive waste in North Dakota is about the same as a Brazil nut or getting a dental X-ray and can be increased. But when is the last time you had dental X-ray without being asked to wear a lead apron?
This does not have to be a “one-time harvest.” We can regulate, drill, and create jobs, economic 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 receive 50 percent of the royalties generated by the current boom.
Dorgan is the owner of Dakom Communications.