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Dennis: Regulators should be more proactive

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It took explosions, fires and deaths before federal and state regulators got grimly serious about the risks of transporting Bakken oil.

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Likewise, it took the discovery of mounds of dumped oil-field waste before North Dakota regulators made safe disposal a top priority.

Now, here’s a suggestion for North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and his regulatory officials:

Don’t wait for the next emergency. Instead, give priority to anticipating that emergency. Then, take action before rather than after the disaster happens.

That’s the kind of proactive response North Dakotans would like to see.

It’s human nature to wait for events and then react to them. Most of us do that on occasion (or even often) in our personal lives. Plenty of businesses can be accused of being reactive, too.

But North Dakota state government has fewer excuses — especially these days, after catastrophes such as the oil-train explosion and fire that came close to incinerating the governor’s hometown of Casselton.

For one thing, the life-and-death stakes of certain oilfield-related disasters are too high for regulators to wait.

For another, there are enough states with enough experience in drilling and transporting oil to give warnings of what’s to come.

And if that’s not enough, plenty of media outlets will point out the pitfalls, too. “Strange byproduct of fracking boom: Radioactive socks,” Forbes magazine reported in early 2013, a full year before small mountains of the contaminated filter socks were found in an abandoned gas station in Noonan.

Also, being proactive can help not only save lives and protect property, but also avoid harsh national publicity, too. “Radioactive waste is North Dakota’s new shale problem,” read a headline on The Wall Street Journal’s front page last week.

“The two recent incidents (of radioactive waste dumping) show that North Dakota’s regulators have been slow to address repercussions from the surge in crude output, ranging from widespread flaring of natural gas at oil wells to drill rigs popping up on historic lands,” the story declared.

Flaring. Oil-train safety. Oil’s rail needs leaving too few trains to serve farmers. The dumping of low-level radioactive waste.

Will there be other “repercussions from the surge in crude output”?

Almost certainly. And North Dakota state government should commit to heading them off.

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

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