Right Off The Cliff

Okay, History/Current Events/Sports Quiz.

Do you recognize the name Private Frazier? No? Well how about if it was on a list with Sergeant Pryor and Privates Goodrich, Gibson, and Hall?  Aha. Lillian Crook and David Borlaug and Tracy Potter think they know. As do Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs and Clay Jenkinson. Well, then, for the rest of you, what if I add the names Gass, Ordway and York? And Lewis. And Clark. Okay, now we’re all there. All members of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which spent the winter of 1804-1805 here in North Dakota, right?

Well, yeah, but that’s history. 200 years ago. There’s a 21st century connection among all those names. You know who knows what that connection is? I bet Lynn Helms does. See, Lynn is the director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas (one s) Division. And those are all names of oil wells in the Bakken. Boom! Gotcha!

Credit Zavanna, LLC, a Colorado oil company which, by the end of this year, will own 100 producing oil wells in the Bakken. Now, I never really paid attention to the fact that oil wells had names, but some creative production manager at Zavanna has forsaken the traditional way of naming oil wells, which generally consists of an operator name, a well number, and a lease name, and has taken to picking colorful names from groups like members of the Corps of Discovery (in addition to the ones above, they also have wells named Sakakawea, Charbonneau, Pompey and Jean Baptiste).

They also have another group of wells, with names like Bunning, Hunter, Martinez, Koufax, Young, Witt, Browning and Larsen. Tracy will probably get that one too. And Tom Gerhardt and Jeff Weispfenning. Clue: They’re all major league baseball pitchers who have thrown perfect games.

Even the name of the company is creative: Zavanna. Where did that come from? Well, according to their website, the word Zavanna came from the word “savanna” and its reference in Bernard DeVoto’s book Across the Wide Missouri. “It was a word of poetry and power. A savanna was of the mind only, of the mind’s edge, of fantasy. It suggested meadows in sunlight, groves beside streams, something lovely and rich and distant.”

Yeah, right. Gag. Somehow, I don’t think old Bernard envisioned the Missouri River, in the heart of the Bakken, as it looks today, all dammed up and surrounded by oil wells. And I’m not sure he’d appreciate being quoted on their website. Before you get all misty-eyed about savannas and expeditions and perfect games, you should know that, as oil companies go, Zavanna is something of a bad actor. Actions speak a whole lot louder than words. Here’s a line from a news story from last week:

“The Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area is not clean until I say it’s clean.”

Those are the words of Kent Luttschwager, the Williston District Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. On March 20, Luttschwager discovered that the vegetation on three-quarters of a mile of shoreline on Four Mile Creek, which runs through the Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area, southwest of Williston, ND, was coated with oil.

The discovery came in the aftermath of one of the stupidest of all oil spills yet recorded in the Bakken Boom (and there have been some doozies). So stupid, so egregious, that somebody ought to go to the pokey. Somebody who works for, or owns, a company called Zavanna. Zavanna’s oil well named Pvt. Frazier 1-34H (as a Lewis and Clark nut myself, it was the name that caught my attention, and sent me looking at Zavanna’s website for all those other well names) sits on a section of land in the flood plain adjacent to the wildlife management area, whose northern boundary is the Missouri River, just below its confluence with the Yellowstone River. As the ice was going out on the two rivers a couple weeks ago, the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division began notifying companies with wells in the flood plain that the potential existed for flooding from ice jams near Williston, and that the companies ought to make sure that everything was secure, in case their well sites got flooded. (Conveniently, the Oil and Gas Division knew who all those companies were, because they had issued more than 50 drilling permits to those companies, allowing them to put those oil wells in the flood plain. Some might argue that was pretty stupid too—another pokey possibility.)

Well, Zavanna (they of the “meadows in sunlight”) didn’t pay much attention. So when the flood waters from the Missouri backed up through the game management area onto their well site, one of their nearly empty oil tanks, parked on the ground with no anchor, went floating away, with a leaking valve trailing a steady stream—at least 1,400 gallons, maybe more—of Bakken Crude. Bakken Crude which found its way into Four Mile Creek, through the game management area, and likely into the Missouri River. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ND Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the ND Department of Health are monitoring the spill right now. The FWS employees in their boats are pulling dead critters out of the water and off the shoreline and will check to see how they died. Wanna guess? I expect we’ll be reading a lot more about this one.

It takes a little work, but if you page through the Health Department’s new website on environmental accidents in the Oil Patch, you’ll find Zavanna is a pretty frequent contributor. Just last month, on Feb. 12, Zavanna reported a 12,600 gallon crude oil spill at a well named Neils 32-29 1-H (I can’t find a gimmick for that name, except it is one of a long line of men’s first names Zavanna has assigned to wells), located just north of Lake Sakakawea in Williams County, which flowed onto private property beyond their well lease.  The Health Department’s incident report said “The oil sprayed out as far as 200 yards across the pasture to the west.” This was the second spill at this well in two weeks. An earlier, smaller spill was reported there Jan. 29.

The Feb. 12 spill was actually pretty small, though, compared to one in August of 2012 at a Zavanna well named Nelson 3-10 1H, in the same neighborhood on the north side of Lake Sakakawea, where Zavanna had a blowout on a windy day which sprayed almost 35,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist over an area stretching more than two miles from north to south. Here are some of the notes from the Health Department’s Incident Report, as reported by Health Department staffer Kris Roberts.

August 16, 2012

Fair amount of issues.

  • Due to wind direction changes and high pressures during the release, what didn’t land on the pad went in two directions – NW and SE. More oil in the mist to the NW, and more water to the SE. 
  • Both mist plumes went ¾ to a mile from the location.
  • Both directions dropped mist across drainages that merge and flow to the E-NE and end up in Long Creek and then the lake (that would be LAKE SAKAKAWEA—emphasis added).
  • Crop land in both directions. Oats and wheat to the SE, and I think hay field(?) to the NW.
  • Misted wheat and oats will likely not be viable for either sale or feed.

August 17, 2012

  • Basic Work Plan in and approved.
  • Absorbent booms set in drainages as precaution against rain washing oil off vegetation/soil and running.
  • Vegetation cutting and collection beginning.
  • Still working on plan for final stabilization of the well (very little risk, as the well is under control).
  • Initial delineation of mist impact area complete, but expansion possible/likely (emphasis added).

August 18, 2012

  • Mist impact delineation expanded (emphasis added) due to wilting/browning of vegetation
  • Transferable oil has been removed from approximately 2.5 miles of fence line.
  • 30 round bales of vegetation have been removed from property south of pad—approximately 30,000-36,000 pounds.
  • 120 bags of vegetation were recovered from hand work.

August 20, 2012

  • Vegetation removal going well. Some areas had sparse vegetation and may need amendments after sampling results come in.
  • Well was formally finally shut in this afternoon after the rods were removed. It was well under control with valving before, but now the rods are out and they can go about repairs and re-working for production.
  • Reporter met me there this pm from the Forum (out of Williston). Photos and story. Hope she was impressed as I am with the speed and willingness to move clean up along fast on the part of Zavana. (emphasis added)

August 21, 2012

  • Some areas yet to cut, due to rocky conditions. They will be using a brush-hog on a skid steer, then a side delivery rake before baling.
  • Although very minimal, wipe sample shows mist extent as far as 1.4 miles to the south. Grain bin there left recognizable, but very faint oil/dust residue on paper wipe. Will not expand vegetation disposal area beyond what they have now, as the fields beyond current area are either pasture or already harvested.
  • Some expansion of vegetation removal to the NW is possible, but waiting to see if vegetation wilts. 
  • Land owner is concerned and watching. Mist to NW was reported as far as 1 mile (oil specks on pickup windshield on first day.

End of Incident Report entries for 2012. Fast forward to next entry on August 7, 2013.

  • 10:30 telephone call with Zavanna and landowner. Gillian (Zavanna employee) reported that she had sent a remediation binder with all information from cleanup to landowner in March, but management had vetoed copy to DoH (emphasis added) unless specifically requested. Request now in, and advised that this type of report is required in the future.
  • Spoke with landowner by phone this date. He is unsatisfied with a couple issues left over from the response work. Apparently absorbent booms were never changed out, and are now overgrown. Soil stockpiles were brought in and placed on his property and are still there. He requested additional soil samples collected from northern portion of impact property and was denied. He requested that he be notified when contractors wanted access to his property and though he was called, they just wanted to go on even when he was not available to accompany them.
  • Gillian is in ND this week, and is willing to meet with both myself and landowner on location. Plan is for Thursday 8/8/13.

August 20, 2013

            On 8/8/13 – 08:30, on location for meeting with adjacent, impacted landowner and his daughter, Gillian and Andrew from Zavanna, and Chris Rodgers from Absorbent and Safety Solutions to address concerns and issues not completed from the blowout impacts. Landowner’s concerns:

  • He wants to be there when anyone is on his property, otherwise he feels it is trespassing.
  • The topsoil brought in last year was; A) not weed free, and B) not spread, but left in belly-dump rows, and C) has large rocks in it.
  • Lath marking sampling locations were not removed from his field.

Negotiated solutions:

  • Absorbent will make appointments to meet landowner anytime they need access.
  • Spray the indicated 4 acre parcel and soil windrows with Roundup to address the weed problem (either Absorbent, or a contractor of landowner’s choice).
  • Spread the windrows out, and 
  • Remove rocks.
  • Re-seed to alfalfa either this fall and spray for weeds next spring, or wait and seed in the spring after a pre-emergent herbicide is put down. Chris Rodgers and landowner’s daughter will work together to determine the best option and get buy-off from landowner. Zavanna and Absorbent will keep DoH informed of progress, and landowner will contact me if he has any further concerns.

That’s the end of the incident reports for that spill. You can draw your own conclusions. I’m guessing this is a pretty typical response to a pretty typical incident. Only God and the Health Department know how many more spills of this magnitude, or greater, are on that website. I’m not going to bother Kris Roberts at the Health Department to see if anything else has taken place. He has enough on his plate right now without being bothered by a blogger. I will check back on the Incident Report from time to time to see if there are any new entries. If you want to look at it yourself, click here.

I can tell you that a cursory look at the website reveals that between March 25, 2013 and March 24, 2014, 365 days, there were 2,002 reported spills, about a fourth of which, 468, were uncontained, meaning oil or salt water ran across the land or into a waterway. Some specific examples, from the Health Department’s Incident Reports:

  • 6,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist “sprayed across the snow on a cultivated field” in Dunn County on March 14 of this year.
  • On the same day, almost 7,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pump at a well site next to a slough in Divide County. The company has been trying to contain it before it gets into the wetland, likely a nesting site for mallards this spring.
  • On November 25 last year, 714,000 gallons of saltwater leaked from a Denbury Resources pipeline just inside the Montana state line and ran into Big Gumbo Creek in Bowman County, North Dakota. Big Gumbo is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, which is a tributary of the Missouri River. Remediation? Here’s what the Health Department’s incident report said: “. . . the environment is too fragile to do more than flush the drainage/creek with fresh water . . .” Wonderin’ why we don’t have a sage grouse season any more?
  • And of course everyone remembers the 860,000 gallon oil pipeline leak near Tioga last September. They’re still cleaning that one up.

What this all adds up to, I’m afraid, is that we are doing some terrible things to our land and water. I think the Health Department is probably doing what it can—which is not enough. Instead of monitoring clean-ups of spills after they happen, we need to move into a prevention mode. Kind of like what the Highway Patrol does when it puts out its “saturation patrols” on holiday weekends. If people know they’re twice as likely to get busted, they are probably going to be twice as careful not to break the law. At least those with half a brain are. And I can’t believe these people who are in the oil business here are stupid. I think they are either careless or willing to gamble they won’t get caught, or both.

So our Legislature has to give the Health Department fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred, inspectors—however many it takes—who will do constant checking on pipelines and well sites, surprise inspections, to make sure oil companies are doing everything possible, every day, to prevent these environmental disasters. We as North Dakotans who love our state and want to protect it should demand nothing less than that. We’re going to vote this year. Let’s vote for people who will promise to do that. It certainly hasn’t gotten done by those who are in office now.

Meanwhile, back to Zavanna. In keeping with their “savanna” theme, they have a whole group of websites named for big cats:  Lynx, Bobcat, Ocelot, Cougar, Tiger, Lion, Jaguar, Puma, Bengal, Sabertooth, Panther, Leopard and Cheetah. Cute. And then there’s my two favorites that they have chosen for well names: Thelma and Louise. Yep. Appropriate. As they lead us right off the cliff.

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One Response to Right Off The Cliff

  1. Karen Striefel says:

    Who are those people that have the grit and support to work for preserving part of ND? Ryan Taylor and who? Let me know if you know.

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