How the North Dakota fracking boom shook a family, The Jorgenson family loved living on the prairie in North Dakota – until the shale gas boom started

How the North Dakota fracking boom shook a family, The Jorgenson family loved living on the prairie in North Dakota – until the shale gas boom started by James William Gibson for Earth Island Journal, part of the Guardian Environment Network. December 4, 2012,
Then the oil wells arrived. They began appearing in 2006, and within just a few years dominated the area landscape. Today at least 25 oil wells stand within two miles of the Jorgensons’ home, each with a pump, several storage tanks, and a tall flare burning the methane that comes out of the ground along with the petroleum. Like most people in North Dakota, the Jorgensons only own the surface rights to their property, not the subsurface mineral rights. So there was nothing they could do when, in May 2010, a Dallas-based oil company, Petro-Hunt, installed a well pad on the Jorgensons’ farm, next to a beloved grove of Russian olive trees. First, heavy machinery brought in to build the well pad and dig a pit for drilling wastes took out some trees. Then the new hydrology created by the pad drained water away from the olives, while others became exposed to the well’s toxic fracking fluid. Some 80 trees were dead by the summer of 2011.

On February 2, 2012, drilling started on a second well even closer to the Jorgensons’ home. “The smell of ammonia permeated the house,” Brenda says, “and the yard was thick for quite a while too. The workers told us the smells came from corrosion inhibitors and biocide.”

The chemical trucks returned on February 9. Brenda emailed the governor’s office asking for air quality monitors. There was no response. That night, their seven-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, who lives on the same road less than a mile away, woke up screaming from a headache. On February 10, the governor’s office called, saying the governor would speak to the head of the Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources, Lynn Helms. Nothing happened. The fracking started on February 18. Brenda quit hanging out laundry to dry because the clothes smelled so bad and the air burned her nostrils.

Then, in August of 2012, the Jorgensons had their worst scare yet. Richard and Brenda had just finished a long drive home from a funeral service when they found that the gas flare on the well 700 feet from their house had gone out. They could smell the foul, rotten-egg scent of hydrogen sulfide gas, and knew that along with it would be a cocktail of methane, butane, and propane. The couple didn’t know what to do. Petro-Hunt hadn’t given them an emergency number, and when they called the company’s office no one answered and there was no way to leave a message. So the couple threw open all the windows in their house, turned on fans, and left to move their horses farther away from the gas line. Brenda phoned me that night. She was in tears and at wits’ end. “Who do you call?” she cried. “What do you do?”

Traveling across northwest North Dakota it is not difficult to find farmers, ranchers, and Native Americans who are outraged by what they are experiencing. Many North Dakotans view the oil rush as an assault on their communities and the places they love. … As White Earth rancher Scott Davis puts it: “We’re collateral damage.” The anger some North Dakotans feel toward the oil and gas industry is fueled by the feeling that the situation is totally out of their control. In many instances, people say, the oil companies haven’t been invited to drill – they’ve just invaded.

If landowners decide not to allow access for drilling, the drilling company has the right to sue – and invariably wins. By landowners’ accounts, even modest requests for change, such as the plea to move a well pad to the other side of a fence to allow for calving or to move a well’s location to save a prairie wetland, are often ignored.

Don Nelson, 48, a second-generation wheat and hay farmer who lives near Keene, North Dakota, says that when a seven-acre well pad was built in the middle of a 20-acre field, the whole piece of property became useless to him. “It’s not economical to farm around it,” he says. Nelson still had to pay taxes on the entire 20 acres, and the compensation didn’t cover his losses. In 2011, North Dakota began requiring oil companies to negotiate with surface rights owners who claimed present and probable future damages to their land, but the state didn’t require them to reach a settlement. Those landowners who have secured settlements normally receive about $1,750 an acre per year in damages. One White Earth rancher who refused to give her name because she worried about “violent retaliation” by oil company workers (she said cattle in the area have been shot by oil workers) says: “You either take the money or they take it [the land] from you anyway by court order.” “People feel powerless,” says Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represents surface-rights owners who are battling oil companies. “The oil company is coming on your property. You don’t have the ability to protect the land. You push the monster back, but at a certain point it’s gonna walk on top of you.”

Rancher Don Nelson says that in his community near Keene “people have stopped going to town on Saturday night. The truck traffic makes it too risky.” “Our people at the Ft. Berthold reservation are literally being killed by oil companies,” says Kandi Mosset, a resident of New Town and the climate campaign organizer for theIndigenous Environmental Network. “We’ve suffered over a dozen truck-related deaths on our roads since 2008.”

Pat Hedstrup, a second-generation rancher in her forties who lives west of Dickinson, says the air pollution has gotten so bad that sometimes the cattle reject the dust-laden feed. “It’s so full of dirt you have to wash it or nothing will eat it,” she says. “Sometimes the hay has so much dirt the cattle won’t even lay on it.” Open range cattle in North Dakota have begun to die from dust pneumonia, a disease usually limited to feedlots. Farmers and ranchers have also found that the land they love is literally trashed by oil company workers. Shelly Ventsch, a farmer in her fifties, lives with her sister east of New Town, on a farm on which they grew up. The North Dakota she knows is one of “quiet, wide open prairies, clean and beautiful … a sanctuary for a yearning, weary soul.” Less than a year ago, a well was installed on her property. In March 2012 she walked through the field and recorded a portion of what the workers had left behind: “There were cigarettes, lunch meat, toe warmers, butterscotch buttons, brownies, safety eyewear, a pipe wrench, pizzas and work gloves, plastic bags of all sizes, DANGER tape, boxes and labels, a placard in plastic reading ‘Texas Buyer 82L-1098 Seller Dragon Products’, and human waste deposits along with paper.”

The damage to western North Dakota’s once-bucolic quality of life is the result of a larger, more violent process: the fracking itself.
The very name of the drilling method, “hydraulic fracturing,” sanitizes what can more accurately be described as “hyperbaric bombing” – using intense pressure to create an explosion.

One of the basic problems of fracking is that as much as a third of what goes down the well bore comes back up. Western North Dakota contains thousands of waste pits from oil wells. A typical pit is 50 yards long, 20 yards wide, and 15 feet deep. It receives wastes such as drilling mud and the combination of water and fracking fluids that come back to the surface (known as “produced water” or “brine”). In April 2012, North Dakota started requiring companies to put liquid wastes in tanks for transport to “disposal wells,” but it still allows them to leave solid wastes such as drilling mud in pits, where the oil companies bury them.

There is one ongoing, structural form of leakage occurring in the North Dakota oil fields that everyone agrees is happening: the routine leaking of natural gas. Methane is so abundant below ground, and so mixed with oil, that everything that comes up the well is full of natural gas. Much of this is burned off at flaring stations near the wells for the simple reason that gas is cheap while oil is valuable. At one level, it’s an enormous waste. Some 100 million cubic feet of gas are burned at well sites each day, enough to power a city of 500,000 – and all because oil companies find it more expedient to burn the gas rather than build pipelines to carry it off.

Longtime North Dakota residents and experienced oil industry employees Jacki and Steve Schilke feel much the same way. Jacki no longer works in the industry, but Steve still does, inspecting pipelines for an independent maintenance company. A decade ago they bought a 160-acre ranch just north of Williston, a fulfillment of their lifelong dream to raise cattle. Starting in 2008, 35 wells went in along the roads within three miles of their home. In May 2010, drilling began on a well and drilling-waste disposal pit about 600 yards from their house. Soon the air began to smell of gases. In June 2011, their previously healthy Yorkie died. Then the cattle sickened. By the fall of that year, Jacki says, “I was so sick I couldn’t walk.” She traveled to a clinic in Montana, where urine tests revealed arsenic poisoning. The arsenic most likely came from the fly-ash used to reinforce the fracking wastewater pits.

Then, that same season, a creek on the Schilke’s land that ran below the hill with the oil well turned yellow and bubbled instead of freezing. When the well behind the house was being fracked, Jacki grew dizzy. Once she passed out for five hours. Eventually the North Dakota Health Department acceded to the couple’s requests to test their well water, and found that it contained ethylene dichloride, a chemical the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls a “probable carcinogen.” Ethylene dichloride is commonly used by the extraction industry as a solvent to remove oil and grease from metal pipes and to bond cement. The Schilkes tried to get the North Dakota Health Department to test their air, but were rebuffed. They then hired a private firm from Texas to do the tests. The results showed high levels of benzene, toluene, and methane 24 hours a day. A Michigan medical specialist confirmed that Jacki had been exposed to neurotoxins and hydrocarbons. This and the arsenic exposure were the probable causes of her physical problems. Today, Jacki continues to battle health problems. Even the Schilkes’ cattle suffer. “Our cattle started to waste away to nothing,” Steve says. “We won’t sell them to slaughter not knowing what’s wrong, so we shoot them when they get that sick.” The Schilkes know they are being poisoned, but they can’t prove the source. They want to leave their home, but they fear that, because of the oil wells, their home and grazing lands are close to worthless. “We want to get out of here and move to Montana, but we can’t,” Jacki says with bitterness in her voice. “Every penny is tied up in this land. Hundreds of places around here are for sale or rent. We’re living in the middle of hell. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Alberta Landspraying While Drilling (LWD) Review ]

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