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Published January 28, 2013, 10:17 AM

Oilfield spills ruin farmland forever

Regulations and reclamation standards are needed.

By: Myron Hanson, Troy Coons, Galen Peterson and Bob Grant,

BERTHOLD, N.D. — As oil and gas facilities are built in North Dakota, we must make sure that further permanent harm to our agricultural land is prevented, and that the land can be returned to an economically productive agricultural status.

With the prospect of drilling tens of thousands of new wells in the near future, there is no doubt that many thousands of acres of agricultural land will be displaced by drilling pads, roads, tank batteries, man camps, permanent waste facilities and so on.

Our concern is that no uniform regulation and reclamation standards are in place under the auspices of either the North Dakota Industrial Commission or the North Dakota Health Department, both of which are responsible for oversight and enforcement of existing regulatory policies and laws.

Our antiquated reclamation and regulation rules were developed when the pace was slower, few rigs were drilling, only 25 to 30 percent of those became producing wells and production per well was much less.

Even more troubling, permanent damage at alarming levels has occurred and is continuing from saltwater spills from pipeline ruptures, tank overflows, rusted-out treaters and equipment, illegal dumping and other careless oil field activities.

There always will be accidents that are unavoidable — but many incidents are caused by negligence, faulty or improperly maintained equipment, tasks completed in haste, failure to follow established safety measures, poor or “I don’t care” attitudes and just plain operator error.

Damage to land from saltwater spills is almost impossible to repair, and various snake-oil solutions that currently are in use have proven to be unsatisfactory in North Dakota. Excavating severely damaged soil, hauling it to designated facilities and replacing it with new clay and topsoil can cost $1 million dollars per acre; and even after this great expense, much contamination still remains.

As oil, gas and saltwater production in North Dakota keep escalating, we cannot allow saltwater spills to be dismissed as “only water.” With every spill, salt remains in the soil and permanently causes our land to be unusable for agricultural production. These accidents must be held to a minimum — and with adequate regulation and strict enforcement of regulatory policies and laws, most of these occurrences could be preventable.

Today, reported violations often garner little attention. Is this because of insufficient resources, staffing deficiencies, inadequate fines, the violations’ low priority or enforcement difficulty?

Updated rules and policies that address today’s oilfield practices must be developed by our North Dakota agencies. True reform must provide real consequences for violators and could even broaden enforcement by levying immediate fines and rewarding those who report violations. This practice is followed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the National Park Service.

Now is the time for the state and its agencies to vacate past methods and protect the future of our agricultural community, which now consists of many third- and fourth-generation farmers and ranchers.

This new generation can co-exist with responsible development of the state’s oil and gas resources, and these irreplaceable resources deserve protection by appropriate state regulation and enforcement that recognizes the changing scope and pace of today’s oil production activity.

The preservation of our land — one of North Dakota’s most valued natural resources — should not be forgotten or ignored.

Editor’s Note: Hanson is chairman, Coons is vice chairman, Peterson is secretary and Grant is treasurer of the Northwest Landowners Association.

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