North Dakota is no stranger to oil. For nearly a century, the land has been flooded with mining companies energized by one boom or another – in the 1930s, ‘50s, ‘80s and most recently in 2008. The state is also no stranger to oil spills.
For the last six years, companies have taken to “fracking” the oil out of the ground. The process involves shooting highly pressurized jets of chemicals and water into subterranean rock formations, cracking them open to get to the oil or gas inside. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has raised controversy throughout the United States for a laundry list of associated risks: toxic waste, earthquakes and water contamination.
North Dakota farmers are experiencing the greatest danger of all: The eradication of their livelihoods.
The wastewater associated with North Dakota fracking is colloquially known as “salt water” because of its high salinity. It is saltier than ocean water and can permanently poison any soil it comes into contact with.
Mike Artz recently discovered a ruptured wastewater pipeline on his land – too late to prevent between 16,000 and 25,200 gallons of salt water from inundating his barley crop.
“We saw all this oil on the low area, and all this salt water spread out beyond it,” said his neighbor Larry Peterson, a farmer and oil-shale contractor. “The water ran out into the wetland.”
“You never see a saltwater spill produce again,” said Artz.
Artz is not the first landowner in North Dakota to have his crop contaminated by salt water, nor even the first in his family. In July, one of his brothers had to contend with a spill that washed off the road and onto his land. Another brother lost five cattle when they drank from a wastewater pit.
During an earlier oil boom, 80 acres of Margaret Hellebust’s land was contaminated with salt water. For the last 50 years, her family has tried planting a variety of different plants, but nothing will grow in the poisoned soil. “As a landowner, you get so disgusted that every time you hear of an oil company, you just almost want to scream,” she told Al Jazeera.
Many salt water containment tanks and wells remain years after companies have mined an area, endangering farmers’ lands with the prospect that they will one day burst or crack. Yet state regulators and the companies responsible for disposal have been less than forthcoming about their spills or cleanup operations.
The Star Tribune reports that between 2012 and 2013, there were 300 recorded pipeline spills in North Dakota that were not reported to the public.
Eighty miles north of Mandaree, a Tioga farmer discovered that 20,600 barrels of oil had spewed across his wheat fields after a pipeline burst. It was one of the largest spills in the state’s history, yet the Tesoro pipeline company did not inform the public for nearly two weeks.
In October of last year, an underground leak contaminated U.S. Forest Service land with 150 barrels of salt water. In November, an explosion ignited 13 tanks and spilled 2,700 barrels of salt water and oil outside of Alexander.
“Our philosophy has always been: If there’s no threat to groundwater, surface water, public health and environment…we didn’t feel the public was threatened and needed a news release to know about it,” said Dennis Fewless, water quality director for the North Dakota Health Department.
The fracking wave that followed 2008 reinvigorated North Dakota’s economy, but salt water spills permanently destroy farmers’ lands. Even after remediation attempts, agricultural lenders are reluctant to help out or buy the tainted land. “If the land is contaminated, I don’t want the hassle or the risk,” says Claude Sem, the president of Farm Credit Services of North Dakota.
For many North Dakota farmers, this most recent oil boom has been a real bust.