Thursday, October 17, 2013
In North Dakota, New Concerns Over Mixing Oil and Wheat
ROSS, N.D. — While three generations of the Sorenson family have made their livelihood growing wheat and other crops here, they also have learned to embrace the furious pace of North Dakota’s oil exploration. After all, oil money helped the Sorensons acquire the land and continue to farm it.
But more oil means more drilling, resulting in tons of waste that is putting cropland at risk and raising doubt among farmers that these two cash crops can continue to coexist.
A private company is trying to install a landfill to dispose of solid drilling waste on a golden 160-acre wheat field across the road from Mike and Kim Sorenson’s farmhouse. Although the engineers and regulators behind the project insist that it is safe for the environment, the Sorensons have voiced concern that salt from the drilling waste could seep onto their land, which would render the soil infertile and could contaminate their water, causing their property value to drop.
“I’m concerned not if it leaks, it’s when it’s going to leak over there,” Ms. Sorenson, 42, said.
Oil companies in North Dakota disposed of more than a million tons of drilling waste last year, 15 times the amount in 2006, according to Steven J. Tillotson, the assistant director of the Division of Waste Management for the state’s Health Department. Seven drilling waste landfills operate in the state, with 16 more under construction or seeking state approval.
Landowners who lease their acreage see a reward, while neighboring farmers often protest the potential harm to their pastures. Farmers here complain that state officials promote policies that help the energy sector grow rapidly with little regard for the effect on their livelihoods.
“I don’t think they’re very concerned about the farmer," Mr. Sorenson, 41, said.
His 36-year-old brother, Charlie, who farms with him, added, “There’s just more effort put on where the bacon’s coming from, I guess.”
Few would argue against the benefits of the energy industry, which has made North Dakota the second-largest oil producing state in the country and helped it build a surplus of more than $1.6 billion.
“I wouldn’t say that production agriculture is being forgotten because everyone understands that it always has been and always will be the backbone of the economy of North Dakota,” said Dave Hynek, one of five commissioners in Mountrail County, where the landfill is being proposed. “However, the tremendous amount of money coming into the state coffers from the oil industry at the present time has overshadowed that.”
Without the oil industry, Mr. Sorenson said, he might not even be farming.
His grandfather worked in the oil fields in Montana in the 1940s to earn the money to buy the land where Mr. Sorenson and his family live. In the late 1990s, Mr. Sorenson worked in the North Dakota oil fields for five years to make enough money to farm full time.
“I’ve worked in the oil industry,” Mr. Sorenson said. “That’s kind of how I got all my stuff.”
The Sorensons receive royalties from oil that is produced on their land and from allowing drilling, which accounts for about 10 percent of their income, Mr. Sorenson said.
“I’m fairly neutral on the drilling,” he said, though that did not lessen his concern over the possibility of a landfill across the street. “This most certainly affects me negatively.”
Ms. Sorenson said she was more worried about the environmental risk of living next to a landfill, like runoff seeping into their well water, and what that could mean for their five children.
“We’d love to see our grandkids and further generations be able to be a part of this land, also,” Ms. Sorenson said.
The Sorensons, who have hired a lawyer, are especially sensitive to the landfill proposal because the property owner offering to lease the land for the project is a second cousin of Mike and Charlie Sorenson. The cousin, Roger Sorenson, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Most drilling waste, usually chunks of earth slathered in chemicals and petroleum, is disposed of at the drilling site. About a year and a half ago, the state passed a regulation requiring drilling companies to dry the waste before burying it on-site to address concerns about runoff and leakage. More companies have since turned to landfills to dispose of waste.
Industry experts argue that landfills are built with better technology and safeguards to prevent environmental hazards than dumps at drilling sites. And it is safer to have a few central dumps that are monitored than a waste pit on each of the thousands of drilling sites throughout the Bakken shale field, said John McCain, the executive vice president and principal engineer at Carlson McCain, the engineering company designing the landfill proposed in Ross.
“I think that landfills carry a negative connotation with them,” Mr. McCain said. “But that negative connotation comes from the old dumps, and the public hasn’t really been educated on new landfill technology.”
Mr. McCain argued that the environmental concern over the proposed waste site in Ross is unwarranted because the soil and liners would protect against leakage.
Those assurances ring hollow to environmental activists in the state, who say they have seen too many drilling-related spills, though not necessarily from landfills.
“We’re not in any way, shape or form against oil,” said Don Morrison, the executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental group. Later, he added, “The pace of development is the problem and the fact that there are laws on the books that are not being implemented to protect people’s water and land and livelihoods.”
Over the past five years, Mr. Tillotson said, contamination from landfills has occurred only twice, and the companies responsible were fined.
“Environmental releases, whether they are on a well site or off-site, or even at a landfill we regulate, is an issue that we take extremely seriously,” Mr. Tillotson said in an e-mail.
For the landfill near the Sorensons to be built, the Mountrail County Commission must rezone the land from agricultural to industrial.
Mr. Hynek said he was unsure whether he would support the landfill. He understood the environmental concerns, he said, but added that those needed to be balanced against the likelihood of a problem and the benefit of oil exploration.
Mr. Hynek, who farms for a living, said he shared one major concern with his neighbors: the increasing conversion of farmland into drilling land.
“This country has always been ag country as far as raising crops and livestock,” he said. “And once this mineral is depleted — and it will be some day — it will go back to being ag land, and I don’t believe it will ever be as productive as it originally was.”