Native Sun News: Tribe keeps wraps on tests of water after spill

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The blazing flare of an oil well pad is the first thing to catch the eye in the reservation segment of Mandaree.

Oil and water don’t mix
Story and photos by Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor


MANDAREE, N.D. –– “It was getting dark, there were mosquitos and mud. We had to find rocks as we waded the shoreline, because the samples had to be taken at a certain depth,” Lisa DeVille recalled.

She and her husband Walter were conducting independent water tests in Lake Sakakawea after frac waste spilled into the Bear Den drainage on Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation’s stretch of the Missouri River watershed in July.

“We gotta be careful who we let see us out there,” she remembered thinking.

DeVille scarcely has the profile of someone who needs to fear being seen. With two Masters degrees from Ft. Berthold Community College, she was poised to graduate with another major in Environmental Science at the time.

However, her experience living in Mandaree at the center of the Bakken fracking boom convinced her that someone might want to cover up the truth about the damage from the waste water, which contains toxic and cancer-causing ingredients.

Sure enough, more than half a year later, the results of official water testing have yet to be released.

In the meantime, the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) of the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara Nation have elected a new Tribal Business Council chairman, and his Energy Department says it is prioritizing oilfield health and safety measures in 2015.

However, some tribal members who have pushed for the measures are skeptical, based on disappointments with past tribal government.

What’s more, industry analysts predict increased potential for accidents as a result of cost-cutting to cope with a slump in petroleum prices that coincides with the early days of the new administration.

The U.S. Interior Department, which oversees fracking on tribal land through the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Indian Affairs, has been developing regulations for three years to update old rules that were put in place before fracking became the tonic of the industry.

However, after industry representatives’ close-up and personal lobbying at the White House in late 2014, no new standards are expected before 2016 on the pivotal environmental and health questions of frac water, wellbore integrity, and frac fluid chemical disclosure.

State lawmakers in North Dakota’s House of Representatives approved a companion bill Feb. 23 for one already passed in the Senate, which was expected to lead to a joint resolution for improved pipeline planning, design, inspection and bonding. A similar bill failed to pass in the previous legislative session.

Yet even as state legislators voted unanimously in favor of strengthened regulation, the most recent in a spate of spills was being contained less than 25 miles west of the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation (FBIR).

The 30-gallon spill, at ONEOK’s $700-million Demick Lake gas processing plant construction site in Keene, was nothing compared to the incidents preceding it.

The most recent of them was an explosion Feb. 16 of a train hauling 3 million gallons of Bakken crude, which spilled oil into a tributary of the Kanawha River, fouling drinking water in the auspiciously named neighborhood of Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

The volume of the train’s cargo was equivalent to nearly three times that of the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, which occurred in 2010 with the Enbridge Line 6B Pipeline break at a tributary to the Kalamazoo River upstream from Lake Michigan.

Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) member Vance Gillette immediately pointed out that his North Dakota statewide grassroots organization, Dakota Resource Council, has been lobbying the local legislature to require stabilization of Bakken oil to reduce its volatility, as Texas oil companies do with theirs.

“If we continue on the present course, it's simply a matter of time before a North Dakota town or city is devastated, and innocents are killed by a derailed Bakken rail bomb,” Dakota Resource Council said in written statement.

Without counting the accidents like the Kalamazoo, involving tar-sands heavy crude transportation from Canada’s Alberta Province, the dangers resulting from the Bakken shipments are a mounting legacy of their own that keeps wire service editors busy.

They reported that a Bakken oil pipeline ruptured on Jan. 17 and leaked 40,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Mont., upstream from its confluence with the Missouri River, which runs through the middle of the MHA Nation.

According to The Associated Press, that spill came just 10 days after the news that the largest pipeline spill in the history of the Bakken boom sent nearly 3 million gallons of toxic frac wastewater and oil washing down a tributary into the Missouri River upstream from FBIR, beginning about Jan. 7.

“We are all down water!” became the cry of alarm for reservation health and environment advocates.

“The MHA Nations need to initiate comprehensive water testing and results must be made available online,” said reservation resident Mercury White.

Memories remain fresh regarding the runaway Bakken oil train that killed at least 42 people and left five missing from the scene of a crash and explosion in the Maine-Quebec border town of Lac-Mégantic on July 26, 2013.

Notwithstanding the gravity of those events, the spill that occurred right on the Mandaree segment of the reservation in July is perhaps the most enduring lesson of all.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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Native Sun News: North Dakota takes on impacts of energy boom (01/26)
Native Sun News: North Dakota tribe confronts many challenges (1/20)

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