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Protecting Water for Our Future Generations in North Dakota Should Not be "Business as Usual"

As a Lakota/Dakota, mother, and pediatrician, I have been concerned about the issue of water contamination in North Dakota for quite some time. It didn’t take long after moving to Bismarck five years ago to learn more about “the Bakken”, fracking, the oil boom, and to see the effects on the city, health care delivery, the changing socioeconomics of the area, including the lack of housing, increasing crime and drug trafficking, and the effects on the surrounding countryside, including high traffic, flaring, and seeing oil wells right next to the Missouri River.

It is easy to become numbed to the use and overuse of fossil fuels in a state in which coal plants are numerous and constantly blasting white grey clouds into the sky, also right next to the Missouri River – yet many people don’t seem to think twice about this, even before this second oil boom for North Dakota.

The propaganda regarding the economic benefits of the oil boom is constant on television, radio, and even in schools. My children learn about the oil industry in school yet learn little to nothing about aquifers or the health hazards of benzene, diesel, and frack water waste.

Do people in the communities in North Dakota know that there are pipelines UNDER the Missouri River? What happens to all of our drinking water all along the river WHEN these pipelines break? The state of North Dakota, the North Dakota Water Commission, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the North Dakota Department of Health and Environment, and the Fort Berthold Tribal Council have been remiss in failing to protect the citizens not only in North Dakota, yet also downriver from North Dakota.

The river and water does not belong to North Dakota. The water belongs to our children and their children. Who has the right to waste the future of our grandchildren’s drinking water? Everyone knows that you don’t crap where you eat; the same would hold true that you don’t crap where you drink. There are other countries which have reasonably made gradual changes to renewable energy; some of these countries have utilized moderation in extracting fossil fuels while protecting water (e.g. Norway), which others see as an oxymoron. We need to move past fossil fuels and think of future modes of energy while we reduce our energy use and waste, and teach this to our children.

If we are to believe that politicians in North Dakota and Tribal leaders in the Bakken area are reasonable and thinking of the future, then why would they be allowing drilling, fracking, and waste dumping to be occurring right along the Missouri River – our life’s blood? This second Bakken oil boom has been taking place for almost 14 years – in that time, the ND Department of Health is now, this month, launching a website which informs the public regarding oil spills, (euphemistically called “releases”), frack water spills, and other incidents (e.g. dumps of radioactive waste, medical waste, etc). We are hearing from community members in the area, that waste water and radioactive “socks” are often simply dumped on the road, as truckers simply don’t want to drive the extra miles to properly dispose of the waste.

Now we are hearing that there is a study taking place, costing $180,000 to measure the effects of raising radioactive waste limits in ND from the current level of 5 picocuries per gram in the short term future. A study that would truly measure the effects of storing radioactive waste in North Dakota, the effects on plants, animals, humans, land, and water, would not cost a meager $180,000 and take a year to study. If ultimately approved, raising the levels for radioactive waste in ND, would allow more radioactive waste in landfills in North Dakota, to levels comparable to other states of 30 to 100 picocuries per gram. Is this what we want for our state?

Our state is being overly controlled by the oil and fracking industry – and whose best interests do they have in mind? Not the best interests of your children and grandchildren’s water. The economy is not the only factor to be considered. It is only a matter of time before we start to see that the Missouri River is contaminated by the industrial activities and waste dumping taking place in the Bakken area. The studies on the water are not being done or are not being publicized. This is what the Department of Health and Environment should be doing for the best interests of the people – to protect our health. The goal should be to regulate industries, not to lower our standards of health and environmental protection.

Cannonball River

Cannonball River

When the governor, the attorney general, the agricultural commissioner, and their golf or hunting buddies are on every 3 person panel and council, making decisions in the best interests of the oil industry – then who is making decisions for the best interests of the people – the people who will still be here when the oil industry has destroyed the land? The business of protecting the people’s health and protecting our drinking water should not be business as usual. These decisions cannot be based on who can make the most money in the fastest manner regardless of the effects on the environment.

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It is difficult to believe that given the recent largest land based oil spill that just took place near Tioga around September 29, 2013, (and was likely leaking for several days prior to this undetected) which ultimately leaked 865,000 gallons of oil (20,000 barrels) (and took nearly ten days for the public to receive notice of), the location just 15 miles north of the Missouri River and about 15 miles southwest of the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge and in proximity to several smaller lakes, AND on top of a small shallow aquifer, AND half a mile from a water well – how could there NOT be water contamination related to this oil spill?

Yet there were prompt reports that the water was safe. It seemed like a hastily made statement given that testing an aquifer and wells may take longer than a day. (See the documents posted by Greenpeace related to this incident stating the same.) These Greenpeace documents seem to indicate that ND DOH is to a large extent relying on the companies to regulate their own cleanups. The EPA then relies on the ND DOH’s word that the spill is being cleaned up and has not affected our water. This is a cycle that does not protect us.

These same governmental agencies had reported earlier in the year that our water was safe despite there being an oil drill spraying oil into the air for a mile long in December 2012, just near Lake Sakakawea. Anyone interested can watch this mist spray onto the lake on YouTube. Yet we are to believe the water has been safe thus far. I would like to see the environmental impact studies and results (e.g. non-biased water sample testing).

Today, December 19, 2013 I attended the Industrial Commission’s meeting regarding Special Places. During this meeting, ND Attorney General Stenehjem presented a draft amendment to the ND administrative rules regarding permits for drilling, which outlines proposed amendments in the processes for the application for permits to drill and impact mitigation plan in areas which are considered to have “extraordinary significance”. Although in the draft, it is stated that “all areas in ND are unique and special places”; proposed areas of “extraordinary significance” include:

  • a. Black Butte in Slope County
  • b. Bullion Butte in Billings County
  • c. Camel’s Hump Butte in Golden Valley County
  • d. Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein formerly known as the Dakota National Forest, in Northwest Slope County;
  • e. Confluence of Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers;
  • f. Elkhorn Ranch;
  • g. Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site, Wildlife Management Area
  • h. Lake Sakakawea
  • i. Little Missouri River
  • j. Little Missouri River National Grasslands – areas designated by the US Forest Service as not administratively available for future leasing after July 31, 2002
  • k. Little Missouri State Park
  • l. Pretty Butte in Slope County
  • m. Sentinel Butte in Golden Valley County
  • n. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  • o. Tracy Mountain in Billings County
  • p. West Twin Butte in Golden Valley County
  • q. White Butte in Slope County;
  • r. Wildlife Management Areas.

The draft distributed by Mr. Stenehjem outlines procedures of mitigation by those companies which would apply for permits to obtain minerals, oil, and gas in these areas. It does not protect the areas from drilling or pipelines outright. The proposed draft amendments do include small buffer zones around the sites. During the meeting, which was attended by numerous people concerned about many sites in North Dakota which have been threatened by oil and gas development in the area, including drills, pipelines, roads, power lines, and large volumes of truck traffic.

The audience included approximately 60 concerned citizens, many from the Dakota Resource Council and those specifically concerned about the Killdeer Mountain area. The discussion by the Industrial Commission did not allow for public comments today. Mr. Stenehjem did comment that he had taken into account the numerous phone calls and emails he had received regarding these “special” designations in his proposed amendments.

It was my understanding that there will be a meeting by the Industrial Commission next month to discuss this proposal further and vote on these draft amendments to the general drilling permit considerations. Nowhere in these discussions was there a mention of protecting the Missouri River as a whole, or specifically regarding the protection of water in general. Most concerns discussed were how these proposals would affect individual land owner rights regarding agricultural use and whether or not the proposed draft mitigation rules would be redundant. How redundant should we be when we are protecting land, water, and our future?

On December 9, 2013 there were early reports of the latest oil and saltwater spill in Billings County, in western North Dakota; some of the oil and saltwater has reached a part of the Little Missouri River. The spill was reported to the DOH by BTA Oil Producers on December 8, 2013. The size of the spill was estimated at 650 barrels, or more than 27,000 gallons. North Dakota and America, we need to wake up! We do not want rivers flowing with oil, diesel and frack water waste. We want healthy children.

[dc]“E[/dc]veryone has a right to their say, not everyone has a right to their way.” said Attorney General Stenehjem. Well, Mr. Stenehjem, when it comes to the lifeblood of our children’s futures, which is water, there should certainly be a right to their way. There are ND Water Commission meetings and ND Industrial Commission meetings taking place almost every month, please see their websites. There are ND Department of Health and Department of Environment meetings this month, including the ND Air Quality Advisory Council. Please see their website for upcoming meetings. Express your concerns. Be an active citizen.


We truly need people in this area to stop being “Protectors of the Bakken” and to step up to being Protectors of the Water and our children’s future.

Sara Jumping Eagle
The Last Real Indians