The North Dakota Brine Spill: Those Frackers Are Fouling the Missouri


Update 01.23.15:  The Dalrymple administration has finally publicly acknowledged that the recent North Dakota brine spill is in fact the largest such spill in the state’s history.  Three million gallons of brine leaked from a pipeline operated by Summit Midstream into a tributary of the Little Muddy River.  At this writing, it remains unclear just how much of the spill has been contained.  The polluted water, which has a higher salt content than sea water, may also contain heavy metals and radioactive material.  The Little Muddy River joins the Missouri a few miles east of Williston.  It is unknown how much of the toxic water has drained into the Missouri and Lake Sakakawea – it is quite possible that a massive quantity has reached the reservoir.  The State of North Dakota assures the public the spill poses no threat to human health.  Notably, in 2013, the state legislature failed to pass legislation to more effectively regulate pipelines carrying fracking wastewater.

Originally Published 01.18.15. Ever since the Bakken Oil Boom kicked off back in 2008, western North Dakota’s environment has taken a beating from Big Oil.  Oil wells are now visible at regular intervals across the Little Missouri Basin – an area that had been known for its beautiful, pristine short grass prairies and wide-open cattle pastures.  There are so many wells in the Williston area, that at night, when the well lights turn on, the former unoccupied plains of North Dakota resemble a major metropolitan area.  The wells, and the incessant human activity around them, have fragmented the region’s wildlife habitat.  Predictably, the ungulates that rely on contiguous stretches of the short grass plains environment have experienced precipitous declines in their population.  Mule deer numbers have been especially hard hit.  Over the past seven years, voluminous and continuous high speed truck traffic across western North Dakota’s roads has killed untold numbers of animals.  Birds, mammals, and reptiles – any creature that can walk, crawl, fly, or slither across a road – have fallen under the tires of the frackers’ semi-trailers and pick-up trucks.  The oil men argue that the killing of critters, although unfortunate, is the price society must pay to satiate it insatiable appetite for oil.

Loss of habitat and the extirpation of fish and wildlife is also the price we supposedly must pay to further enrich the ridiculously rich, such as oil man Harold Hamm of Continental Resources.  Hamm, who has been instrumental in developing the Bakken Field, is worth an estimated $9.3 billion.  You gotta wonder what sort of self-perceived inadequacies compel a man to accumulate billions of dollars.  Wouldn’t $5 or $10 million be enough?  Certainly $1 billion would be enough.  Maybe in Hamm’s mind every billion that he accumulates puts him at a greater distance from his impoverished upbringing in Enid, Oklahoma, or maybe his billions somehow compensate for his widely-known lack of education.

Now here’s the latest news from the plundered lands of the Bakken Oil Field.  A company involved in fracking in western North Dakota, Summit Midstream, has spilled an unknown, but possibly large, quantity of brine into the Little Muddy and Big Missouri rivers.  The spill occurred well over a week ago, but we are only now learning of it.  Why the delay in informing the public of the spill?  One possible answer – Governor Dalrymple and his oil buddies needed time to develop a public relations strategy that would limit any criticism of the fracking industry.  Also, company officials may have sought to contain the spill before releasing any information about it – a contained or partially-contained spill is far less likely to generate a public outcry than a spill that is ongoing.

The saline water is at this very moment streaming toward Lake Sakakawea – North Dakota’s largest body of water and the state’s premier walleye fishery.  North Dakota’s media outlets (which are fearful of offending the oil men and the politicians they own in state government) have not provided any details on the amount of brine flowing into the Missouri, nor have they released any information on the possible effects of that polluted water on fish and wildlife.  What’s worse, Dalrymple’s administration will not provide any information on the possible consequences of the spill on human health.  This brine spill, and others like it, make one thing clear: Big Oil has undermined two values that democratically-minded North Dakotans cherish – government transparency and objective, informative news reporting.


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