We Cleaned Up The Air But We Couldn’t Clean Up The Politicians

Let me start with this. I was sitting in my recliner last Sunday evening watching a rerun of the old Lawrence Welk show from the 1960s. It was one of Lawrence‘s “theme shows” and the theme this week was Los Angeles. As the show neared an end, after renditions of surfer songs and Hollywood movie themes, the band and singers were preparing for the closing song, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Some of you might know it. Willie Nelson recorded it a number of years ago. (Blue skies, Smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies. Do I see.) Here’s how Lawrence introduced the song.

“Los Angeles, like many of our big cities, has a problem with air pollution. So blue skies are not as common as they used to be. But we can still enjoy the song with this title.”

That show was recorded in the mid-60s, and it took me back to what I’m pretty sure was my first environmental awareness incident. It was December 1968, and I was flying into Los Angeles International Airport to report to my next U.S. Navy duty station near Los Angeles. As we approached all I could see out the window was a big brown cloud, and then we descended through it into L.A. I had never experienced smog before, but I was about to experience it for the next year or so, and it was pretty awful. Many days the city announced over radio and TV that there was a “smog alert” in effect, and pregnant women, small children and old folks were advised to stay indoors that day. Often for days on end.

As I was just about nearing the end my assignment there, I remember watching on TV on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1970, as President Richard Nixon, just down the road from me at his California office in San Clemente, signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. America’s 1970 New Year’s Resolution was to care for our environment. Later that year, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. A few years later we also had the Clean Water Act. So that was the response to concern shown all during the 1960’s about what we were doing to our environment. (And it’s kind of nice to know that there’s a generation of Americans, probably today’s college students, who grew up without the word SMOG in their vocabulary. I remember in his remarks President Nixon said this was going to take more than a federal government initiative—states were going to have to join in as well.

A couple of years later, when I arrived back in North Dakota, I found out my home state was facing environmental problems of its own. A coal boom had come to North Dakota. We were mining lignite coal and burning it to boil the water, to create the steam, to turn the turbines, to produce electricity, at big electric generating plants. And there were virtually no state environmental regulations to deal with it. My friend Mike Jacobs said in his book “One Time Harvest” that the coal industry had come west looking for three things: cheap coal, cheap water and cheap politicians. In North Dakota they found all three.” The Legislature, dominated by pro-business Republicans, had been caught sleeping at the switch when it came to regulating the energy industry, although, much like today’s oil boom, they didn’t seem to care much about it.

But later that year, in November of 1972, we elected a Governor who did care, Art Link. With his leadership over the next 8 years, we were able to enact the nation’s strictest mined-land reclamation laws, and surface owner protection laws. Those were two major concerns. Prior to Art Link’s time, the coal companies were just stripping off the topsoil, scooping up the coal, and leaving big open pits and big mounds of dirt all over what we called “coal country.” Some of those big dirt piles are still out there today, although now we call them “Wildlife Management Areas.”

I was a reporter for the Dickinson Press in 1974 when a company called Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company called a press conference in Dickinson, to announce they were going to build 23 coal gasification plants in western North Dakota, using huge amounts of water and coal to turn lignite into liquid natural gas.  And that’s when North Dakota’s environmental community really formed. Local farmers and ranchers whose operations were threatened by coal mines and gasification plants, spurred on by a bunch of young environmental organizers, formed a group called United Plainsmen to fight back and protect their land, water and air. (Incidentally, that group lives on today, under the name of the Dakota Resource council, and is still the leading environmental voice in North Dakota.) The coal gasification company needed water permits from the state to get the huge amounts of water required for their process. Governor Link chaired the State Water Commission, and he and Agriculture commissioner Myron Just came up with the idea of attaching conditions to those permits to regulate things that state law didn’t cover. Well, that slowed the process down enough to let the Legislature pass some laws, finally, and the end result was that instead of 23 plants, they build one plant, about half the size of what they had proposed originally. Well, it turned out that the gas they produced cost more than it was worth, so it had to be federally subsidized, and no more plants were ever built. Link coined the phrase “cautious, orderly development,” and that’s what we got from the coal industry. It worked. Today, while we still have only that one gasification plant, a total of nine power plants in 5 different locations produce about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to heat and light all the homes in Minnesota and North Dakota. But that happened over a period of about 15 years. And for the first time since the 1930’s, North Dakota gained population in the 1970s.

We went through a minor oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was so short-lived that we never really experienced huge environmental problems. Because this was before the advent of fracking, much of the drilling activity took place in shallower rock formations, so most of the impact was in the Bad Lands, south of the area where most of the drilling is taking place today. They did some damage, leveling buttes and building roads for their drilling rigs, but it could have been worse. Like today, the price of oil dropped drastically in the mid-1980s, and drilling here became unprofitable, and we had a typical boom and bust. The price of oil, which had climbed to over $100 a barrel in 1980, dropped below $30 in 1986. Bust. For many years you could see bumper stickers on pickups in the western part of the state that read “Lord please let there be just one more boom. This time I promise I won’t piss it away.”

Well, we got it. A perfect storm hit 20 years later—a steep increase in price of oil and the development of the new technology called fracking. As the value of a barrel of oil climbed back over $100 in 2007, the expensive fracking process became feasible and the result is the today’s boom—although we’re currently experiencing a mini-bust, with prices hovering right around the $50 mark right now. No one knows what’s going to happen next, but everyone except the oil industry and the politicians knows that severe damage has already been done.

Western North Dakota is experiencing an environmental disaster like no one could ever have imagined. Because, like in the 1970’s coal boom, the industry has come here looking for cheap politicians, and this time they have found them. This time, there is no Art Link. This time, the politicians, led by our Governor, are so desperate for anything that might turn our economy around, they simply turned North Dakota over to the oil industry and went and buried their heads in the sand.

I’m mostly concerned about the environment, so I’m not going to deal with all the social problems that accompanied a boom like no state has ever experienced before. Crime, drugs, prostitution, traffic accidents, housing shortages, skyrocketing prices for everything that only people making oil field wages can afford. The Bismarck Tribune reported this week that the Williston Police Department is averaging 3.6 felony arrests every day right now. Three or four felony arrests every day. Ten years ago they maybe had 3 or 4 a week, if that.

I’m going to deal with two of the environmental issues we’re facing today..    First, trains.

Oil companies like dealing with the railroads when it comes to shipping their oil to refineries. There are some big pipelines, and more are proposed, but trains can go anywhere–pipelines only go in a straight line to one destination. So much of the oil being shipped out of state today goes by train. The problem is, Bakken crude is very volatile, and state regulators refuse to inspect the trains to see what is in those oil tankers, and they refuse to make the oil companies treat the oil to make it less explosive. Just this week, the Legislature killed a proposal to add state inspectors to the Public Service Commission’s staff, because the oil industry doesn’t want them. The result is, hardly a month goes by without a train derailing and exploding into a huge fireball somewhere in North America. The first one was in a small town in Quebec, and it killed 43 people. Since then, most have been in isolated rural areas, so no one has been killed, but the environmental damage has been huge When tanker trains derail, the tanker cars have a tendency to burst, and if they don’t catch on fire,  that oil goes into whatever is beside the tracks—lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests, schoolyards . . .   .

The other issue is spills. Because the state lacks inspectors to look at every gathering pipeline and drilling site to make sure the oil companies are doing things safely, we’re spilling highly toxic oil and saltwater all over the western part of the state. Because when oil comes up out of the ground, toxic saltwater, called brine, comes up with it, and the brine has to be disposed of. Generally, it is pumped back underground into deep wells drilled for that purpose. The problem is getting the brine to those wells. It goes by gathering pipelines and trucks, and no one is inspecting those pipelines and trucks to see if they are safe. The result is spills, and when the brine and oil spills, it kills everything it comes in contact with—plants, animals, fish and birds.

So here’s how our politicians have responded to this problem: Instead of hiring a big field staff to inspect things, they hired a few inspectors who go to the site of each spill AFTER THEY HAPPEN and say “Yep, that’s a spill, clean it up.” And that’s it.  Until a year and a half ago, no one even kept track of how many of these things there were. But after a huge spill up in northwest North Dakota, the public became so enraged that the State Health department built a website that lists every spill that takes place these days.

Well, I took a look at that website this week. I looked at every day for the past year. Here’s what I found. You have to go all the way back to June 28, 2014 to find a day without a spill somewhere in oil patch. That’s 291 consecutive days. And it wasn’t just one spill most days. In that 291 days there were a total of 1605 spills. That’s an average of more than 5 a day. The biggest was 3 million gallons of brine spilled into a creek north of Williston. That creek runs into a river which runs into Lake Sakakawea. That’s an environmental disaster. Because in addition to the damage to the plant and aquatic life, most of western North Dakota gets its drinking water from Lake Sakakawea.

In the 365 days leading up to Tuesday, there were 1,995 spills, an average of almost 6 a day.

Those are spills that, for the most part, could be prevented if the state, which is collecting billions of dollars in oil taxes each year, hired inspectors to make the oil industry clean up its act. But our politicians refuse to do that. Why? Partly because the oil industry has contributed so much money to our elected officials for their campaigns that they virtually own the politicians, from the governor on down. In 2012, the oil industry pumped more than half a million dollars into the governor’s campaign, enough to guarantee themselves that they could keep him in office.

Sadly, there is no Art Link today to step in and put the brakes on this rampant environmental disaster. Like the 1970’s, Art Link would not have stopped the oil industry from succeeding here. He simply would have slowed them down until regulators could catch up and protect our environment.

I want to close this with some words from Art Link. In one of his most famous speeches, given to the annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperatives in the early days of the coal boom, in 1973, this great Governor said this:

We do not want to halt progress. We do not plan to be selfish and say “North Dakota will not share its energy resources.”

          No . . . we simply want to insure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.

          And when we are through with that, and the landscape is quiet again, when the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar

          And when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain

          Let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say “Our grandparents did their job well. This land is as good as, and in some cases, better than before.

          Only if they can say this will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.


6 thoughts on “We Cleaned Up The Air But We Couldn’t Clean Up The Politicians

  1. Governor Link was such a great leader for our State. He is missed, but his wise words and counsel continue to live on….. thank you Art, you were a great man!


  2. I moved to ND in 1968 to teach at VCSC and then to Bismarck in 1971 to continue my teaching career at Mary College. Having grown up in Chicago I was, as a photographer, mesmerized by the solitude and untouched beauty of western ND. I remember the coal industry screaming at Art Link telling him that the cost of reclamation would put the coal mining industry “out of business”. Not so!
    This time around what will the oil industry leave behind “once the landscape is quiet again”?


  3. “Until a year and a half ago, no one even kept track of how many of these things there were.”

    This statement is false…the DoH kept track of spills but did not publish them until the “big spill”. Then the DoH put out news releases on every spill as requested, and because of the numbers they no longer care unless it is news worthy.

    Seeing the state of conservation in North Dakota, I can safely say very few give a damn. Farmers are raping the land – tile and surface draining wetlands (sometimes both at the same time), ripping out trees, still plowing, leaving no cover crops and bare soil to blow with the wind. Trash has become a problem of epic proportions, getting worse every year.

    Then you have the oil industry which you have well documented.

    When will the voting public figure out that the Republican led legislature doesn’t give a damn as long as the coffers of the state are full. We all have seen how much a governors promise means with the denial of an increase to the OHF program. But as I said you have conservation districts who have no interest in conservation or that fund would be empty.

    When the 120 million dollar “wishful thinking” legislative proposal was killed, it should have been a clue……but the biologists didn’t get it and their arrogance showed with an ill conceived and poorly ran initiated measure. When it was voted down it should have been a clue, a wake me up moment…people need to be educated on why should they care. It is not enough for a biologist to say this is happening – we need money – you have to care because I said so.

    Now two of the initiated measure leaders are in danger of losing their seat on the OHF board – WELL DUH! What the hell did you expect? You have four farm groups on the committee that have ZERO interest in conservation, production yes. The anti-conservation movement begins with Dan Wogsland and his ilk. It will not stop until there is nothing left for the Future Farmers of North Dakota or the people.


    1. Jim, I am sorry it took so long for this comment to show up. I’e had trouble with spam and so every new commentor gets caught in my spam filter until I approve the message. Sometimes I am away from my computer and it takes a while. Thanks for your comments.


  4. Art Link wrote a poem riffing on that “when the landscape is quiet again” but a search on the Internet gave me nothing. It’s a good thing he never saw the toll the oil industry has taken on his beloved McKenzie County.


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