Raspberries For Me, And A Raspberry For A Big Oil Company

I just love it when I make a dire prediction, saying something bad is going to happen, and it turns out I am wrong. It’s happened twice this week, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

First, I have been moping around the back yard for a month predicting we wouldn’t get a raspberry crop this year. Our bushes sprouted hundreds of little pea-sized grey-green berries in mid-June and then nothing happened. They just sat there, hard as rocks. Every time I walked by I’d reach over and pinch one, and it was still hard as a rock. And not growing. I asked Mr. Google why I had “tiny hard raspberries” and I learned that if conditions are too wet in the spring, that can happen sometimes, and decided that had been the case, and I wrote off this year’s crop. And then, in the middle of last week, BAM! Those little guys started growing and turning pink and then red and then reddish purple, and I tasted one, and it was delicious, and then I picked a few and took them inside for Lillian. Her “I told you so” was worded very carefully and softly with a big smile, “Nice to be wrong.” She’s taken over picking responsibility and it’s the first thing she does in the morning, before breakfast even, grinning ear to ear, and she’s harvesting 4 or 5 pints every day. It can’t go on forever (he said casually, hoping to be proven wrong again) but God, it is fun right now. Raspberries in cereal, on ice cream, with cantaloupe for dessert, raspberry muffins, raspberry ice, raspberries stuffed into my mouth by the handful, and now raspberry bars in the oven. My friend Clay says if there could only be one fruit, it should be the raspberry. He’s right. They’re perfect, right down to the way their name is spelled, which I love: rasp berry.  Long live the Queen of Fruits: the Mighty Raspberry.

The second time I was wrong this week was at today’s meeting of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the group, consisting of the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner, which oversees the state’s oil industry. They did something totally unexpected, and I applaud them for it. Here’s what happened.

About a year ago, a field inspector for the Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division busted an oil company named Halek Operating, LLC, for dumping 800,000 gallons of salt water down an illegal well out near Dickinson. It was the kind of operation that can poison nearby ground water and drinking water, and it was a blatant violation of North Dakota law. The report prepared for approval by the Industrial Commission today said Halek had committed “egregious violations causing considerable risk of contaminating underground sources of drinking water” and that there was evidence of “deception, concealment and intentional or willful violations of (Industrial) Commission rules.” Oil and Gas Division Director Lynn Helms even told the Commission today that Halek had conducted a secret operation in the middle of the night to try to cover up its violations.

I wrote about this here almost exactly a year ago, on July 26, 2012, after the Industrial Commission announced, with much fanfare, making headlines all over the state, that it was going to fine Halek a million and a half dollars. This was not the first violation for Halek. They were cited earlier for improperly cleaning up an oil well spill, and were fined almost $600,000, but Helms and the Industrial Commission suspended most of that and only charged $60,000, plus a $20,000 bond fee.

I wrote last year that Helms had told the Commission Halek was entitled to a hearing to dispute the new charges, and I speculated that once again the fine would be reduced significantly, after Helms said the company “will end up paying a higher percentage of the fine” in this new case. The word “percentage” sent me a message they would reduce the fine. The big question, I said, was: What percentage would they negotiate this time around? At the same time, Harvey Brock, the publisher of The Dickinson Press, wrote in an editorial that “Maybe round two of Halek’s rule-breaking comes from lax consequences in the situation a few years ago . . .”

“There should be no leniency this time around,” Brock said.

Meanwhile, the editor of The Prairie Blog (me), after expressing considerable skepticism about how stiff the penalty would be, began checking in with Karlene Fine, secretary for the Industrial Commission, from time to time, asking her if the case had been resolved yet. Finally, a year later, it turned up on the agenda for today’s Industrial Commission meeting. Having been so skeptical, based on past history of the generally oil industry-friendly Industrial Commission and its head cheerleader, Helms, I decided to go to the meeting and watch Halek get lenient treatment. Turns out I was wrong. And yes, I am pleased as punch, because today the Industrial Commission levied the largest fine ever against an oil company, $1.5 million, apparently the maximum amount they were allowed to, under their rules.

This is a clear example of how public opinion of the oil industry has changed in the past year. Yes, the state is still generally pretty gleeful about our good fortune, as am I. But we’ve gotten past the giddiness that caused us to turn a blind eye to misdeeds by these big companies. Stories about attempts to drill in wilderness areas and on national wildlife refuges, about litter and radioactive waste disposal, about crime and traffic deaths and zoning problems, have apparently at last caught the attention of the public and the public servants. It’s too early to say there’s a “No More Mister Nice Guy” attitude, but we’re getting there.

This case isn’t quite over yet. No check for $1,500,000, payable to the State of North Dakota, has yet been written. That will take an official court order, which could come in the next few weeks. And then a company executive is going to have to swallow hard and sign that check. And there’s still a criminal trial to be held. The man responsible for this, Nathan Garber, is scheduled to go on trial in Stark County September 4. If he’s convicted, he could face five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. He’s apparently asked for a jury trial. We’ll see if his lawyers (and he has good ones) can negotiate a plea agreement that gets rid of the jail time. That would not be an unexpected outcome. Oil company executives almost never go to the pokey. But once in a while they should. Maybe the rest of them would pay attention.

So, those are the two predictions I got wrong this week. But I’m pretty happy about both of them. They say good things come in threes. Maybe I should go buy a lottery ticket. Nah, I’d never win the lottery.

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