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Other views: Confluence oil spill is troubling

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Here is a generous serving of high praise for North Dakota Game and Fish supervisor Kent Luttschwager. He seems to be one of the few (the only?) state habitat/wildlife managers who has spoken out forcefully regarding oil pollution.

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Last week, 33 barrels of crude oil (that’s just short of 1,400 gallons) spilled from a flooded oil well near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The area affected is the Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area.

The offending company had claimed earlier that its wells were secure in the face of flooding caused by ice jams on the rivers. Clearly, at least one well was not secured or, as recommended, shut down before it was impacted by floodwaters.

The spill was not minor. Luttschwager, who supervises the Williston Game and Fish District, and his crew found that three-quarters of a mile on both sides of Four Mile Creek in the management area was coated with oil, ranging from a light to thick coating on grass, trees and shrubs, according to a report in the March 22 Bismarck Tribune. The mess will require extensive cleanup, and could be a threat to the endangered pallid sturgeon, one of the iconic fish species in the rivers.

In words as strong as any heard after oil spills, Luttschwager said: “The Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area is not clean until I say it’s clean.” He was so dismayed by the advancing pollution (initial reports from the State Health Department did not convey the extent of the spill), that he added, “I was not prepared for what I saw.”

Some of the wells affected by floodwaters went under a couple of years ago, Luttschwager said. Furthermore, the Oil and Gas Division said owners were notified that ice jams were likely; wells were impacted as early as March 14. But there is no effective regulation that orders the wells be shut down and secured before damage and spills occur. There are no short-term or long-term response plans for protecting habitat after a spill. In other words, it’s pretty much up to the oil well companies to respond in the way they see fit, which they can do because what regulation exists is perceived as toothless.

Game and fish managers are trying to do their jobs while operating within the understood strictures of an unofficial muzzle. Many of them will say privately and off the record that severe damage is being done to the west’s habitat, wildlife populations and waterways. They value their jobs, so they do not speak out.

Luttschwager’s candid assessment of the confluence spill is refreshing. It ought to be the model for all game and fish managers. It won’t be. And don’t be surprised if the next time we hear about the Williston district supervisor, he’ll have been reassigned to counting mussel populations beneath a bridge on the Sheyenne River.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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