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Oil explosion simulated in Dunn County safety exercise

Dunn County Sheriff Clay Coker converses with emergency responders Beth Grove, center, and Steph Bren in Manning during a safety exercise Saturday. Close to 50 people from various southwest North Dakota agencies and officials from Oxy Petroleum attended the walk-through.

MANNING -- With more oil field activity than ever before occurring in Dunn County, safety is a priority for local and industry officials.

On Saturday, emergency management personnel and law enforcement from Dunn County and the surrounding area came together with representatives from Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) for a simulated oil field accident safety exercise.

Dubbed a "full-scale oil explosion exercise," close to 50 people were on outside the Dunn County Courthouse for a dry run of what might happen if a hazardous materials mishap occurs.

"We wanted to do this as a county because the chances of something like this happening are extremely high," said Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew. "The chances for something happening in a neighboring county are also very high, so it's important that we work together. It's also important to get emergency personnel and law enforcement together so they can better learn how to communicate with each other."

The safety exercise -- which was based around a fictitious explosion of a hydrocarbon storage tank -- came complete with actors, state and local emergency response units, area emergency managers and Dunn and Stark county sheriff's departments personnel.

"It's just like anything," said Dunn County Sheriff Clayton Coker. "The more you practice, the better you are when it really happens. My vision is to have more of these types of exercises in the future. We need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Serving as a "controller" for the dry run, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services Southwest Regional Response Coordinator Bill Brown said that, in addition to added safety concerns related to the oil field, responders need to work together because the state is relatively rural and locations can be remote.

"A lot of responders train individually as a group," Brown said. "In other words, law enforcement trains with law enforcement and what have you, which is all good, but, in a disaster such as this, they have to have a good working knowledge as to what certain responders are doing and why they're doing it. Whether it's in an oil boom area or an area with no oil activity, North Dakota has limited resources. There could be an incident that could overwhelm local agencies very quickly and that's where they're going to need to rely on other entities."

Especially in a busy place like Dunn County, law enforcement and local and state government officials can't detect every potentially dangerous situation, Brew said.

"Even if it's not a life threat, but just a concern, people should call 911 if they're concerned so we can check it out," Brew said. "That's why we're out here. If there's a concern, we want to know about it and we want to help people look into it. Our citizens are our eyes and ears out there and there's more going on now in Dunn County than there's ever been. We want to make sure that we're reacting and taking care of people."

Brew said Oxy representatives had originally planned to provide a manipulated hydrocarbon explosion at one of its work sites, but decide against the idea for liability reasons. Most of Saturday's exercise took place in the Dunn County Courthouse parking lot.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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