Dust in the wind: Southwest ND counties at work to contain irritant
In 1978, Kansas sang "all we are is dust in the wind." For residents of southwestern North Dakota in 2013 caught in a dust storm on a windy day, that lyric can certainly ring true.
The region's dust storms -- a worrisome issue for county officials and a result of the booming economy -- can be troublesome for allergy or asthma sufferers, said Dr. Parag Kumar, a Bismarck-based pediatrician for Sanford.
"We have not done any studies, but we have a very strong feeling that the dust in the air is contributing," he said, adding that just about any other windy day can help trigger an asthma attack or allergies.
But getting dust in the eyes is a problem for anyone unlucky enough to be caught in a dust storm.
"We see a lot of children, especially young adults and teenagers, who are complaining about burning sensations in the eye, and they have redness in the eye and watering in the eye," Kumar said.
Ophthalmologists attribute the increase in eye injuries to particulate pollution in the air, the pediatrician said, despite the region's generally good marks for air quality.
The effects of a windy day in North Dakota are not as dramatic as those in the Middle Eastern desert, said Kumar, who worked in Dubai before moving to the U.S.
"If you have a sandstorm pass through suddenly, you will have people coming to the (emergency room)," he said. "Their teeth, their mouth, everything gets filled with sand."
Children with asthma can be most affected by particulates in the air.
"If their asthma has more exacerbations and if you have more episodes and your asthma is not well controlled, then they tend to develop stiffening of their lungs and then they are less likely to outgrow their asthma," Kumar said. "Some irreversible changes can happen in the lungs if the asthma is uncontrolled or if there is frequent flare ups of asthma."
Most damage done to the environment by dust is aesthetic -- cars covered in dust, not being able to stay outside for a barbecue or not being able to open windows because the dust is so thick in the air, said Dave Glatt, environmental health section chief for the North Dakota Department of Health.
"A lot of this is very localized on a regional basis where we're monitoring," he said. "We're really not seeing a lot of particulate matter in the air, but we do know that on a localized basis houses located next to gravel roads where there's a lot of traffic dust can be an issue."
For western counties dust control has become a major issue.
The Dunn County Commission has budgeted $2 million for dust control this year -- something that wasn't a concern before the oil boom, County Auditor Tracey Dolezal said.
"Before we had the oil development and all the truck traffic and all the vehicles and the frack jobs it really wasn't a concern like it is now," she said.
The Department of Health is looking into using salt water from some oil wells -- not left over fracking water, but a byproduct of the drilling process -- to recycle and spray on roads to help control the dust, Glatt said.
"We're trying to identify oil field wells that produce a certain type of saltwater brine that would be acceptable to the health department but also would be able to show some dust control," he said. "And then try to locate those in every county so they don't have to drive so far to get a source of material."
The company that Dunn County hires to spray the roads has set up a depot in the county to reduce travel, Dolezal said.
Both Marathon and Oxy regularly send representatives to Dunn County Commission meetings.
"Oil companies have been willing to help," Dolezal said. "They want to keep that dialogue or discussion with the companies open."
But the best dust control is that provided by Mother Nature, Dolezal said, in the form of rain.
This summer is supposed to be average, said Lindsay Tardif-Huber, Bismarck-based National Weather Service meteorologist. There is some rain and thunderstorms in the immediate forecast, but southwest North Dakota averages less than 8 inches in the months of June, July and August.
"The Dakotas have a pretty dry climate, especially out west, so that would just be a typical summer for them," she said.
A lack of vegetation due to a construction boom following the oil boom has caused a lot of the dust to stir up, but Kumar hopes that once the houses are built grass, trees and other plants will once again be put in the earth.
In his home country of India, deforestation due to the pressures of a growing population has created a dust problem worse than North Dakota's.
"It's so bad that my children don't even want to go back there," he said. "Every time we go for a vacation you will see crazy dust storms."
Even though there are no known major health issues from the dust now, a study should be done to figure out the long-term effects of exposure to dust, Kumar said.
"We all seem to be very gung ho about the money that it is bringing," he said. "Are we ready to invest some of that money into figuring out the health impact, especially coupled with what access to health care services -- this can be like a time bomb."