Here’s The Map North Dakota Leaders Didn’t Want You to See

Well, I don’t want to always be the bearer of bad tidings, but it is good to know what is going on in the world around us. In the words of British philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power.” The Dakota Resource Council has brought us some knowledge this week about bad things happening around us, namely oil industry spills.

The DRC has helped to publicize a map that leaders in North Dakota state government didn’t want you to see.

It is a map of all the oil, saltwater and other hazardous materials spills in North Dakota’s oilfield since 2000. It is ugly. It makes me sad. You can look at it here. It is an interactive map. You can zoom in and out, and click on any of the thousands of little dots that denote a spill and it will take you to a link with the North Dakota Health Department’s oil incident report for that spill. See a dot next to the farm you grew up on? Click on it and find out what happened. It’s that easy.

What you get from this map that you don’t get from the Health Department’s  hazardous material spill website is a sense of the magnitude of the problem and a look at “hotspots” where so many spills have occurred in a small area that it is obvious there is a problem that needs to be addressed by environmental authorities. For example, go to the map and look at the small area south of Marmarth, in the extreme southwest corner of the state, where the map shows more than 200 saltwater spills, 150 oil spills(although most of them small), and 50 “other” spills which included things like the solvent methyldietthanolamine (MDEA), emulsion, drilling mud, oil mist and source water. These spills are outside the Bakken and occurred mostly before 2011, in an area where there was a mini-boom, headquartered in Bowman, in the early part of this century, before all the rigs were pulled out and sent north to the Bakken when that play became so profitable.

But there are plenty of hotspots in the Bakken. You can zoom in on this map right down to individual sections, and there’s a section of land northwest of Tioga , section 7, Township 158N, Range 95W, (on the map it’s at the intersection of 77th St. NW and 107th Ave. NW) where eight saltwater spills have occurred in the past few years. The land in that section must be just toasted.

And the concentration of spills along the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea (from which most of us in central and western North Dakota get our drinking water) is very troubling. (There’s a reason why Wayne Stenehjem included Lake Sakakawea on his list of “Special Places.”) I know that the Health Department is monitoring these, to the extent their resources allow, but they are stretched pretty thin.

But zooming out to see the big picture is pretty scary. Eight thousand dots on this map provide a visual picture of the Health Department’s list. And they’re not all there, at least not yet. For instance, the big 865,000 gallon spill at Tioga last September is not on the map. I’m not sure why, but it might be because the Health Department has taken that spill report off its Oilfield Environmental Incidents list and moved it to its General Environmental Incidents list, and the map is drawn from the Oilfield Incidents list. I don’t know why, they just have. So maybe the mapmaker didn’t find it.

The mapmaker, by the way, is a young fellow out in Montana by the name of Josh Gage. He’s good. He said he just got a new “platform” for his GIS business and wanted to try it out, and so he thought he would make a map like this of his home state, because he had heard of a lot of spills in the eastern part of Montana. Unfortunately, he learned, the Montana records are slips of paper in a file cabinet, not an online database like North Dakota’s. North Dakota’s database, incidentally, is brand new, put there late last year after that massive oil spill at Tioga called our attention to the fact that there were thousands of spills occurring and no one was notifying the general public.

So in the absence of a Montana database, he decided to make a map of North Dakota spills. He called the State Health Department here and asked if he could get access to the database so it would be a simple matter of downloading it and plugging it into his GIS system. He was told “No.” He would have to submit a FOIA request to get that. Well, Josh decided he didn’t have the thousands of dollars or the thousands of hours it would take to make that happen, so he just went to each individual page of the website and copied and pasted all 8,000 entries, 17 per page, one page at a time.

The other thing he couldn’t get from the North Dakota Health Department were the GIS coordinates (latitude and longitude, for us laymen) of the spills, so he could only make the map accurate down to the township, range and section, instead of the exact location of the spills. So each dot on the map is in the proper section of land, accurate to within one mile, not right down to the exact location within that section.

Josh had nothing bad to say about the Health Department. He just told me, when I asked, what would have made his job easier.

Last year I was told by someone who knows, when the Health Department website first went online in early December, that there were three things missing that could be helpful—a map, a downloadable database and GIS coordinates. Young Josh the mapmaker confirmed that for me. There’s no reason those things couldn’t be available, but someone at the Health Department, or, as I said in an earlier post, someone at a higher pay grade, doesn’t want them there. My conversation with Josh confirmed that those are the three things missing.

I asked Josh if he would be willing to contract with the Health Department to put his map on their website and keep it updated. He said “Sure.” That would be a user-friendly thing for the Health Department to do, and pretty inexpensive, too.

But for now, that’s not happening. If you hear about a spill, you can look up the legal description of it on the Health Department website, then go to Josh’s map, which you have bookmarked somewhere else on your computer, and go searching  for it. Looking at it another way, right now you can click on any dot on Josh’s website map and get a link to the Incident Report for that spill, but you can’t click on an Incident Report on the Health Department’s website and get to the map. Wouldn’t that be a nice, convenient, handy feature. At almost no cost?

The Health Department did build a map that would do that, by the way, the map that was vetoed. The Health Department may even be using it internally. But people who have seen that map and this one say this one is much better. So here’s my request to the Health Department:

Dear Health Department: Would you please call Josh Gage at 406-570-1060 and make a deal with him to link your spill site to his map to make your site easier for all of us to use? Thanks.

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