By James William Gibson; originally published by Earth Island Journal.
In 1979, Brenda and Richard Jorgenson built a split level home in the midst of a large ranch outside the tiny town of White Earth, North Dakota. Richard’s family is from the area – his grandfather started homesteading on the plains in 1915 – and the couple’s affinity for the area runs deep. They love the land they live on: the epic sky and seemingly endless grasses of the prairie, the White Earth River meandering through a tree-lined valley. For most of their lives the landscape of the region has been dominated by agriculture – wheat, alfalfa, oats, canola, flax, and corn. The Jorgensons always figured they would leave the property to their three children to pursue the same good life they have enjoyed.
Then the oil wells arrived. They began appearing in 2006, and within just a few years dominated the area landscape. Today at least 25 oil wells stand within two miles of the Jorgensons’ home, each with a pump, several storage tanks, and a tall flare burning the methane that comes out of the ground along with the petroleum.
Like most people in North Dakota, the Jorgensons only own the surface rights to their property, not the subsurface mineral rights. So there was nothing they could do when, in May 2010, a Dallas-based oil company, Petro-Hunt, installed a well pad on the Jorgensons’ farm, next to a beloved grove of Russian olive trees. First, heavy machinery brought in to build the well pad and dig a pit for drilling wastes took out some trees. Then the new hydrology created by the pad drained water away from the olives, while others became exposed to the well’s toxic fracking fluid. Some 80 trees were dead by the summer of 2011.
On February 2, 2012, drilling started on a second well even closer to the Jorgensons’ home. “The smell of ammonia permeated the house,” Brenda says, “and the yard was thick for quite a while too. The workers told us the smells came from corrosion inhibitors and biocide.” Indignant, Richard called Governor Jack Dalrymple’s office. A North Dakota health inspector arrived – but not until days later, after the drilling had stopped and trucks had left, and when neither of the Jorgensons were home. “We knew he’d come only because we found his card on our door,” Brenda says drily. She tried contacting the county to see if they could re-zone their land as industrial, which they hoped would lead to closer regulation. County employees referred her to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates oil drilling. When she got ahold of staffers at the industrial commission, she was told she needed to talk to the county.
In just five years North Dakota has gone from a quiet agricultural state to a rapidly industrializing energy powerhouse.
The chemical trucks returned on February 9. Brenda emailed the governor’s office asking for air quality monitors. There was no response. That night, their seven-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, who lives on the same road less than a mile away, woke up screaming from a headache. On February 10, the governor’s office called, saying the governor would speak to the head of the Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources, Lynn Helms. Nothing happened. The fracking started on February 18. Brenda quit hanging out laundry to dry because the clothes smelled so bad and the air burned her nostrils.
Then, in August of 2012, the Jorgensons had their worst scare yet. Richard and Brenda had just finished a long drive home from a funeral service when they found that the gas flare on the well 700 feet from their house had gone out. They could smell the foul, rotten-egg scent of hydrogen sulfide gas, and knew that along with it would be a cocktail of methane, butane, and propane. The couple didn’t know what to do. Petro-Hunt hadn’t given them an emergency number, and when they called the company’s office no one answered and there was no way to leave a message. So the couple threw open all the windows in their house, turned on fans, and left to move their horses farther away from the gas line.
Brenda phoned me that night. She was in tears and at wits’ end. “Who do you call?” she cried. “What do you do?”
The Jorgenson’s experience, dramatic though it might be, is not necessarily exceptional in western North Dakota these days. In just five years North Dakota has gone from a quiet agricultural state to a rapidly industrializing energy powerhouse. By the middle of 2012 North Dakota was producing about 660,000 barrels of oil a day, more than twice as much as just two years before. That number makes North Dakota the second largest oil producing state in the United States, after Texas.