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Published July 12, 2011, 02:25 PM

ND looking at oil traffic dust's effect on crops

BISMARCK, N.D. — Heavy rain and flooding in western North Dakota has put a damper on a state study of how dust from oil industry traffic affects crops and pastures.

By: James MacPherson, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. — Heavy rain and flooding in western North Dakota has put a damper on a state study of how dust from oil industry traffic affects crops and pastures.

The state launched the study in response to complaints from farmers and ranchers, who say dust from traffic on unpaved rural roads has stunted crops, damaged pasture and caused allergic reactions in livestock, said Jim Hennessy, the North Dakota State University Extension Service agent in Mountrail County. But rain and spring flooding has suppressed road dust or washed it off plants, making it difficult to assess the situation, he said.

“Research for the trial is happening in most unusual years we've seen in past 100 years,” Hennessy said.

Mountrail County has been a hotbed of oil development, and he expects the dust problem to get worse again as things dry out over the summer. Airborne dust can travel well beyond ditches by the road and into fields and pastures. Plants smothered with dust often are dwarfed by those that are aren't; dust blocks sunlight and clogs plant pores, Hennessy said.

“Dust stunts growth,” he said. “Photosynthesis is what they need to be bright, lustrous plants.”

The $15,000 study uses sticky placards to collect and measure dust in fields and pastures along some rural roads heavy with truck traffic, NDSU Extension Service agronomist Jeremy Pederson said. Researchers also will analyze plant samples to determine damage, and yields from fields of dust-coated crops will be compared with those from fields where dust isn't a problem.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence about dust damage, but this is the first time data has been collected in North Dakota to document the problem, Hennessy and Pederson said. Results will be shared with other oil-producing counties, and the extension service could seek federal funding for further study, Pederson said.

“We're just trying to get a handle on how big the problem is,” he said. “We're trying to measure any effect on plant growth, development and yields.”

Wayne Johnson, who raises wheat, durum, flax, canola, peas and corn on land a few miles north of Stanley, said he and some fellow farmers have seen yields, or the amount they harvest per acre, shrink by as much as 70 percent in fields nearest roads. They believe it's because of the dust. The problem has grown in the past few years with the increased activity in the oil patch, he said.

“When you cover a leaf up with dust, it absolutely slows down the growth and can kill it, unless a good rain can wash it down,” Johnson said.

Veterinarian Ceylon Feiring said she's seen more dust-related respiratory allergies in cattle and horses with the increase in truck traffic in the area.

Feiring, who helps run her family's Angus cattle ranch near White Earth, said about 25 trucks an hour pass her property.

“Dust rolls in the yard like a haze all day long,” she said. “There is a fine powder covering everything.”

Feiring said she suspects five calves at a neighboring ranch died last year of dust-related pneumonia.

“I didn't do an autopsy because the rancher didn't want to pay for it, but it was most likely caused by dust problems,” she said.

Dustin Roise, who runs a cattle ranch and raises hay near Ross in Mountrail County, said he has to change his socks, pants and the air filter in his tractor more often with increased dust in the area. His cattle haven't suffered any ill effects, but he said that's because they've moved.

“Their grazing patterns have changed,” Roise said “They stay off the stuff along roads and won't eat it if there is dust on it.”

Roise said his hay crop hasn't been affected, and he hopes it never is because that would bump up his feed costs and reduce the amount of hay he could sell.

“I don't know what the answer to dust is, other than to reduce oil traffic, and that's not going to happen,” Roise said.

Scott Stammen, Mountrail County's road superintendent, said the county has increased its budget for dust suppressants more than tenfold to nearly $600,000 in the past three years.

The mixture of magnesium chloride forms a hard crust on the road surface that hold downs dust but eventually causes potholes and washboarding. For a time, the chloride-coated roads are smooth, which has led to complaints of speeding on rural roads, Stammen said.

“We can't win for losing,” Stammen said. “But there is plenty of job security for us with dust control.”

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