“She said she grew up not far from an injection well, where oil companies disposed of wastewater during an earlier boom. Her father drew water from a spring near there. She has no clear evidence of connections. But her parents both died of cancer, she said. Both sisters had cancer. So did close neighbors.
“Some nights you could go outside and the air was so rotten you couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I’ve always believed these oil wells cause cancer. We breathe the air. We drink the water. We farm the land. Our cattle eat the grass.”
“We need to do a better job of regulation. We don’t have the experience. We need people to guide us because we have to protect our future. We have to look out for our children.”
A Forum Communications special project
TRIBAL SECRETARY WEIGHS NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES
By Chuck Haga – Forum Communications August 18, 2010
FOUR BEARS, N.D. – Judy Brugh strides along a hilltop overlooking Lake Sakakawea as it wends through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The sharp, homey pungency of sage rises from her footfalls as she puts the lake at her back and steps to the other side, to a late afternoon vista of blue sky, deep grassy ravines and, in the summer haze beyond, a line of sentinel buttes.
This is her prayer place, a high knoll favored with wildflowers, prairie grasses and quiet. It is where she came to pray when she learned she had cancer. And it is where she came to offer thanks when treatment turned the cancer away.
Brugh, 64, tribal secretary for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, paid for those long months of treatment in Illinois with oil money: a lease and royalties check for $160,000. Her story reflects the broader but unfinished story of oil’s long-term benefits and costs, its opportunities and consequences.
The initial lease payment three years ago allowed her to buy a house and a new car. It didn’t make her Beverly Hillbillies rich, “but it made my husband and me comfortable,” she said. “We were able to pay off some bills and help our children.
“And I had cancer. The money came at such a time of need.” But oil has brought negatives, too, she said. “Are we going to be so congested that we are not able to live a healthy life? Are we going to have any of the serene beauty of the reservation left? Will we pick Juneberries? “Before, by 11 at night it was quiet. You could hear a cricket. Now it’s the sounds of jake brakes and big trucks down-shifting.”
For the children
She also worries about cancer … oil and cancer.
She said she grew up not far from an injection well, where oil companies disposed of wastewater during an earlier boom. Her father drew water from a spring near there. She has no clear evidence of connections. But her parents both died of cancer, she said. Both sisters had cancer. So did close neighbors.
“Some nights you could go outside and the air was so rotten you couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I’ve always believed these oil wells cause cancer. We breathe the air. We drink the water. We farm the land. Our cattle eat the grass.
“We need to do a better job of regulation. We don’t have the experience. We need people to guide us because we have to protect our future. We have to look out for our children.” Brugh’s family has roots in a place called Red Butte, under water since the Garrison Dam was closed and the Missouri River bottomlands were flooded to form Lake Sakakawea. It was a place of fluttering cottonwood trees, tall grass and a sweet-water creek that ran by the house.
“I remember the prettiness of it,” Brugh said. She was 6 when the family relocated to higher ground near the western edge of the reservation. “It was a sad day,” she said. “None of us understood why we had to move. We lived in a tent that summer while dad built a house.” When she became sick in 2006, “my tribal council prayed for me,” she said. “The chairman helped take on some of my duties. And the people never complained about me not being here.
“I feel really good now. I’m back to my normal self. I’ve gained weight. I can do housework again. “And I can come here, to this place of peace. This was a place people went for sun dances years ago. You can still come here to pray or meditate or just feel good.”
Haga is at email@example.com.
“The city sells 1.5 million gallons of water a month to the oilfields, “and most of that is trucked on Highway 23,” he said.[Dan Uran Newtown Mayor]
More seriously, the exploding traffic and deteriorating roadways have led to several fatal accidents. “We’re losing loved ones, neighbors,” Uran said.
“Levings, the tribal chairman, echoed that concern, noting that he narrowly avoided a head-on crash with an oil truck as he was driving home recently.
“We’re losing too many lives,” he said. “Today it is very, very dangerous to drive 23.”
“You know how my tribal cop stays alive?” Levings asked, sitting on a bench outside the lodge where he could see traffic whipping by on 23. “He hits the ditch” when a truck is coming from the other direction and it appears there isn’t enough room.”
State and federal assistance can’t keep up
By Chuck Haga and Mila Koumpilova – Forum Communications August 18, 2010
FOUR BEARS, N.D. – Marcus Levings Jr., chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, was on his way recently to the Crow Agency in Montana, where Arikara scouts who served with the U.S. Army (including Gen. George Custer) were to be honored.
“It was a roller-coaster ride as I went from Highway 23 to Highway 22, the road full of potholes,” he said. “Oil trucks were zigzagging to avoid them.
“I stopped the car, got out my BlackBerry and took pictures – and e-mailed them directly to the governor.” Gov. John Hoeven responded.
“We got some money to take care of those spots,” Levings said.
But he and local leaders throughout western North Dakota’s burgeoning Oil Patch say they need much, much more.
A steady flow of trucks drives N.D. Highway 8 between Stanley and New Town on a daily basis. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald
Mark Nesheim, a township assessor in Mountrail County, estimates that his township – with its 36 oil wells – contributes at least $42 million in oil tax revenue a year. This year, it received $5,000 to maintain its 24 miles of roads, which in some places have sunk 18 inches under the weight of oil trucks. The township let six miles of paved road go back to gravel because it couldn’t keep up with the giant potholes the frenzied traffic was punching in it.
“The needs are immediate, and we aren’t seeing any immediate help from our governor,” Nesheim says. “For the amount of wealth generated here, we’re just asking for a pittance.”
From Dickinson to Watford City, from Williston to Stanley, from New Town to Minot, state, county and township roads have been hammered by convoys of heavy trucks racing to and from oil rigs, wells and storage bins.
Steve Kelly, owner-manager of Trustland Oilfield Service, said that in the past two months he’s had five trucks hauling water, gravel, oil tankers and roustabout crews in the New Town area 24 hours a day, seven days a week – his drivers putting on more than 700,000 miles on state Highway 23 and surrounding roads.
“The county roads are so decimated with potholes, they shake the trucks to where welds and air lines break,” he said.
The two-lane Highway 23 is hands-down the most nervewracking route for water truck driver Roger McCollough: up and down hills, pressed by convoys of other impatient truckers, and no shoulders to lean onto in times of crisis.
“Sometimes, you just hold on to the wheel and say, ‘Please,’ ” McCollough said, glancing up at the sky. “Nothing else you can do.”
Highway 23 has been called the most dangerous road in the world without a bomb hidden on it. Seven accidents in the past few years have claimed nine lives, Kelly said. Each accident took the life of someone he knew.
“We’ve outgrown this road,” he said. “My drivers get scared because there’s no shoulder to pull over on. There’s nothing there. It’s a miracle more people haven’t been killed on these roads. “I cringe at night when I get a call after 10 p.m.”
So much oil, not enough beer?
Earlier this year, an extension service agent dashed into a meeting in Stanley a few minutes late, blaming it on the traffic: During the 80-mile drive from Watford City, along highways 23 and 8, he’d counted 109 semis.
Most were oil, he said, though one was a beer truck.
“The pounding the roads take out here is unbelievable,” said Don Longmuir, the Mountrail County planner, who related the extension agent story.
It’s a constant scramble to keep gravel on gravel roads. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on dust suppressants, an expense unheard of before the oil boom.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recently convened a highways hearing at the Four Bears Lodge and Casino, operated by the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The senator held a similar hearing earlier this summer in Williston, and at each session he heard urgent pleas for help.
State Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, who has repeatedly called on Hoeven to convene a special legislative session to deal with the infrastructure crisis, likened the region’s road system to water from a 6-inch pipe being pushed into a 1- inch hose.
Super trucks hauling drilling rigs move among a dozen sites a year, he said, and there may be 400 truckloads of water, oil and equipment hauled to and from a site – as many as a million truckloads a year in the region.
“We’re talking heavy, heavy trucks,” Onstad said. “Our highways simply aren’t designed to handle that. We’re looking at 15, 20 more years of drilling. And if (drilling) technology continues to improve, who knows where that will go.”
Federal aid accounts for just more than half of the state’s transportation budget, according to Department of Transportation figures.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us” in finding help in the next federal highway bill, Conrad told local officials at the Four Bears meeting. Senators from other states frequently point out to him that North Dakota receives more in federal spending than it pays in, while their states pay in more than they receive. “They want change,” he said, but he will argue “that this oil activity is creating a lot of resources, including to the federal government.”
Francis Ziegler, director of the state Department of Transportation, said the department is spending $450 million in projects this year on more than 2,000 miles of state roads, the biggest construction season ever.
That includes “aggressive” work in the Oil Patch, he said, such as $70 million in improvements to U.S. Highway 85 and adding turn lanes on N.D. Highway 23 in the New Town area. “Rumble strips,” meant to startle sleepy or distracted drivers back into their lanes, have been added to several high-traffic roads. Unfortunately, those also tend to make narrow roads narrower.
“What we’re seeing out here is unprecedented,” Ziegler said. “The truck numbers are astonishing. … The crews go out to fix potholes, but they get one fixed and a few trucks blow it out again.”
Dan Uran, the mayor of New Town, said traffic in town is up 53 percent since 2002, with truck traffic up 300 percent at one intersection. “Sometimes you can stand there 10 minutes waiting to cross the street,” he said.
The city sells 1.5 million gallons of water a month to the oilfields, “and most of that is trucked on Highway 23,” he said.
More seriously, the exploding traffic and deteriorating roadways have led to several fatal accidents. “We’re losing loved ones, neighbors,” Uran said. “I remember traveling on 23 to Minot as a kid. I don’t think it’s been improved much since.”
Levings, the tribal chairman, echoed that concern, noting that he narrowly avoided a head-on crash with an oil truck as he was driving home recently.
“We’re losing too many lives,” he said. “Today it is very, very dangerous to drive 23.”
In Stanley, schools Superintendent Kelly Koppinger worries about the safety of students on buses, especially now with the scarcity of housing in town.
“Our buses are on the road an average 70 to 80 miles round trip every day because families have had to find places to live in outlying areas,” he said. “Our kids may be on the bus an hour and 15 minutes.
“We’ve been lucky and haven’t had bad accidents here. But some of the north-south roads especially are pretty narrow for those trucks. The state needs to look at directing road dollars to impacted areas.”
To improve safety, the state Transportation Department has lowered speed limits on 23 and on N.D. Highway 8, which links New Town and Stanley and saw average daily traffic triple from 2006 to 2009. Truck traffic has increased over that stretch by 629 percent, according to the department.
The department also is working with the N.D. Petroleum Council on educational programs for drivers. Many local officials complain about speeding.
“You know how my tribal cop stays alive?” Levings asked, sitting on a bench outside the lodge where he could see traffic whipping by on 23. “He hits the ditch” when a truck is coming from the other direction and it appears there isn’t enough room.
Over the next four years, the department plans to spend about $400 million on state roads in the 17 oil-producing counties, plus $68 million on local roads in the region, Ziegler said, assuming federal and state funding remains at least steady.
The writers are at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.