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Dennis: Oil industry promotion, regulation don’t mix

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opinion Dickinson,North Dakota 58602
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Dennis: Oil industry promotion, regulation don’t mix
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

From the oil-train fireball near Casselton to the massive pipeline spill near Tioga to the reckless endangerment of the drinking water supply near Ross, North Dakota’s industrial accidents have been much in the news.

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But other states have been there before. Just over 50 years ago, in fact, Minnesota found itself at the center of equally damaging and embarrassing headlines.

Here’s a look back at that time, a review of how Minnesota found a solution — and a note about how that solution can be an example for North Dakota.

“In 1962 and 1963, industrial accidents spilled 3.5 million gallons of oil into the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers,” Wikipedia recounts.

“The oil covered the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Lake Pepin (60 miles downstream), creating an ecological disaster and a demand to control water pollution.”

On Dec. 7, 1962, pipes at the Richards Oil Plant in Savage, Minn., burst in low temperatures. The pipes spilled a million gallons of gas into the Minnesota River.

“On Jan. 23, 1963, a storage tank collapsed at Honeymead Products Company,” Wikipedia continues.

“The accident violently spilled 3.5 million gallons of soybean oil into downtown Mankato, Minn. The company recovered some of the oil, but citizens drained 2.5 million gallons of it into nearby rivers.”

When the ice thawed in March, the oil was deposited between St. Paul and Lake Pepin.

“The Twin Cities dumped industrial waste into this area of the river, and the oil was unnoticed,” Wikipedia recounts.

“This changed on March 28, 1963. Residents noticed oil-covered ducks struggling in the Mississippi River. … Citizens began rescuing and cleaning ducks but were overwhelmed by the number of birds.”

Eventually, the oil killed so many birds that the Minnesota National Guard was activated, and the U.S. Coast Guard broke the remaining ice on Lake Pepin so oil could flow downriver.

“The spill caused 3,211 known duck deaths and damaged other bird, mammal, fish and turtle populations,” Wikipedia continues.

“Fish and insect eggs in the riverbed suffocated, and large fish deaths occurred throughout the year.”

Despite this calamity, Minnesota regulators couldn’t inspect the businesses until April, three to four months after the spills. Why?

Because “the only agency regulating water pollution was the Water Pollution Control Commission,” as Wikipedia reports.

“The WPCC was part of Public Health Services and could only act if a health emergency was created.” A bird- and fish-kill didn’t qualify, so the commission had to wait to get the companies’ permission before it could put inspectors on site.

Now we come to the moral of the story, which is this: As a direct result of the spills, Minnesota enacted stronger pollution controls.

And in 1967, those laws led to the creation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, an agency charged not with conserving wildlife, preserving parks, promoting development or carrying out any other duty besides controlling pollution.

Clearly, Minnesota learned from its mistake. Today, North Dakota should do the same. It can do so by taking Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider and Rep. Kenton Onstad’s advice.

The state should split the Department of Mineral Resources’ promotion-and-regulation duties, thereby giving regulation the focus that — as North Dakotans have learned the hard way — it deserves.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at

Tom Dennis
(701) 780-1276