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Van Hook braces for drilling

The entry sign to the Van Hook Recreation site gives a quick look at the services available at the most popular boat ramp access points anywhere on Lake Sakakawea. The site is managed by the Mountrail County Park Board, under lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune1 / 5
Arden Eide, of Van Hook, N.D., says he'll wait and see how it goes before judging a mega-well oil project being developed just down the street and close to the public boat ramp at the recreation site on Lake Sakakawea. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune2 / 5
Terry Clayton, owner of Ranchman's 23 restaurant near Van Hook Recreation Site, has plans to add a $5 million, Western-themed retail pavilion and roping arena. Clayton says the impact of a mega-well development at the recreation site should go away once the wells are operating. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune3 / 5
The distance from Lake Sakakawea's busiest boat ramp at Van Hook Recreation Site to equipment moving in the background on a new 11-well oil pad is around 800 feet. Work started within days of Slawson Exploration receiving its final permit, and residents are thinking about how it will affect them. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune4 / 5
Van Hook Recreation Site, with 120 cabins and about a dozen year-round residents, is a popular destination for thousands of boaters, who will be affected this year by a Slawson Exploration drilling project 800 feet from the boat ramp. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune5 / 5

VAN HOOK, N.D. — A fleet of earth-moving equipment rumbles across the black dirt at a multi-well oil pad very near Lake Sakakawea's busiest boat ramp.

Slawson Exploration didn't hesitate to start work on a controversial 11-well unit about 800 feet from the ramp at Van Hook Recreational Site, where hundreds have cabins, thousands recreate and 90,000 visitors were tallied in the most recent year counted.

The company was issued a final permit March 10, and scrapers and dozers were at the pad five days later. That may seem like record time off the starting block, but company spokesman Eric Sundberg points out that the permit to extract oil 2 miles below Lake Sakakawea was five years in the process.

This time of year, the yellow machinery crawling around the 25-acre dirt pad is about the only thing moving at Van Hook. Stubborn, rotting ice still reaches up to choke off the ramp and the dozen or so year-round residents are just starting to think about yard work and priming the boat motor.

They're also thinking about what life will be like when a drilling rig moves in next month and hydraulic fracking crews come behind it. They haven't forgotten that Slawson lost control of an oil well just to the east of Van Hook in 2012 and a plume of oil, gas and salt water spewed 50 feet high for two days before the well was controlled. There also was a nearby fire on a tank battery during a lightning storm last summer.

Beyond the unusual events, the Van Hook arm — a vast reach of water extending north from the main lake proper — is surrounded by what has become mostly routine oil development. The arm is entirely within the exterior boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which has 1,600 oil wells, 10 rigs drilling and another 500 wells permitted.

Arden Eide retired to a home at Van Hook. There's a sunny attached porch with an outdoor kitchen and kayaks piled up, evidence that when warm weather rolls in, so do the good times.

Eide also is a member of the Mountrail County Park Board that manages the Van Hook site, and the Friends of Sakakawea, an advocacy group that objected to the proximity of the Slawson project.

The park board didn't have any say in the wells' location and would have preferred more of a setback from the busy ramp. But Eide says it will also receive some lease revenue from the project, creating the sort of nuance familiar to many — the oil patch takes, it gives and for the most part, it just is.

"All of us who live here, our life's been compromised by the Bakken," Eide said.

The wells' closeness to the water, where families unload boats and coolers is a concern.

"That blowout was very close," he said.

On the other hand, an oil transload on the railroad about a mile away is noisy and loud, and, over the years, the sounds of wells being fracked were audible all over the Van Hook arm.

"In the summertime, with all the people running around at all hours, the campfires, this is not a pristine, noise-free place. But that's people recreating, not industry," Eide said. "I've got confidence they will minimize (disruption). I'm withholding judgment until I see how it turns out."

Colleen Dorval, of Van Hook, was babysitting her granddaughter in the baby's parent's home, the closest one at Van Hook to the well development just across the roadway.

She can hear the low rumble of the machinery at work, but said she was uncomfortable talking about the wells because her husband is a Slawson Exploration employee.

"I will say my worries are lessened by the fact that I know my husband will do all he can in his control to make sure it's done properly," she said.

A few blocks away, down the dirt lanes that divide the 120 Van Hook cabin sites into town-like blocks, Ron and Margo Egeberg were enjoying a quiet noon hour together.

Ron Egeberg said he could hear the roar of the 2012 blowout and remembers the sound.

"That'd be the main worry. It's a shame it has to be where it's at, but we aren't going to stop it now," he said.

In balance, though, he doesn't think the project will change life much at Van Hook and hopes it doesn't disrupt the fishing or result in chaos.

Margo Egeberg says they love living at Van Hook year round, with its winter quiet, summer fishing and friendly neighbors.

"I just hope everything stays good," she said.

Up the road a few miles, Terry Clayton is counting on that. He owns the bustling Ranchman's 23 restaurant at the crossroads of Highway 23 and Highway 8. He has plans to add a $5 million, Western-style retail pavilion, with an outdoors cantina and roping arena.

He depends on locals, including Van Hook recreationists, for the bulk of his business. There are oil wells on either side of the truck stop and motel that partner the restaurant development.

"This is the way it is here in the oil field; it's a way of life," Clayton said. "I've got mixed emotions (about the Slawson project). It's positive for the area, and wells are all around here already. I don't see where the impact will be unless someone is living beside it. Once the wells are completed, I think there'll be very little impact."

Sundberg said the company will do what it can to make the drilling and production compatible for Van Hook users. The company will build a 32-foot-high sound barrier around the well pad, use a quieter electric instead of gas-driven drilling rig and run pipelines to a storage tank battery three-quarter's mile distant.

Each of the 11 wells will cost in the range of $8 million, partly because the well's horizontal legs will extend out 3 miles to tap into the Bakken shale far below the bed of Van Hook arm.

Eide says no matter how close or loud it may be, he doesn't think the well development will affect the overall popularity of Van Hook, a lively and lovely destination, with its cabins, bait store, camping, parks and lake shore all around.

"As long as the walleye are biting, people will be here. Will it take away from their experience? Probably," he said.