The Sellout Of Van Hook Park

WARNING: In this article I’m going to rip some North Dakota politicians a new one. This isn’t personal, and it isn’t partisan. They’ve got it coming because of malfeasance in office. I’m not going to pull any punches. They deserve it. I know I’ve been pretty critical of some of our state’s leaders lately. Sorry. But we’ve got some really bad shit going on in our state, and someone has to talk about it. Our leaders are failing us.

This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine. The big boys who read that magazine possess about 90 per cent of the guns and three-quarters of all the testosterone in North Dakota, so if they can stand my rants, so can you.

Now, first a little background.

There’s a little resort community called Van Hook Park on the north end of Lake Sakakawea, named for the town which formerly existed nearby until it was flooded by the waters backed up behind the Garrison Dam. It’s nothing fancy. Two hundred or so trailers and cabins, a bait shop and convenience store, gravel streets and a campground with 100 RV sites.

The Van Hook recreational community sits on land partly owned by the Corps of Engineers and partly by the Mountrail County Park Board.  There’s a park manager and a cabin owners association to manage the facilities there. At times, when the walleye bite is on, the boat ramp next to the campground and cabin sites is the busiest boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea.

Fishing has been good over the years in what is known as the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Cabin owners have been happy, and users of the park and boat ramp, who come from all over western and central North Dakota, spend happy weekends there. Other than the hum of outboards during the day, and the singing of shore birds and warblers at daybreak and dusk, it’s been a pretty quiet place. Until now.

This spring, an oil company named Slawson Exploration moved in beside the resort, and with its huge machinery, began clearing a 25 acre site at the top of the boat ramp, which will be home to an 11-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community. Drilling could start there any day now.

Slawson Exploration’s well pad–getting ready for drilling 11 oil wells at the top of the Van Hook boat ramp.

Mountrail County officials, cabin and trailer owners, and members of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea learned of the development last summer, long after it been permitted by the North Dakota Industrial Commission. And they’re pretty concerned.

Concerned because in December of 2012, the same company had a huge blowout on a well a little ways east of the resort, which resulted in more than 50,000 gallons of saltwater and oil mist spewing almost a mile onto the ice of Lake Sakakawea.

“Our greatest fear,” says Terry Fleck, president of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and a cabin owner at Van Hook, “is what happens if they have a blowout at the boat ramp when there are 200 boats on the water waiting to return to the resort?”

The thing is, this didn’t have to happen. You might recall a few years ago North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote an administrative rule, which he brought to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, to restrict drilling within a mile of what he called “extraordinary places,”– places which should be protected from industrial development. The list included state and national parks, wildlife refuges, the Little Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea.

In early 2014 he took the rule, with great fanfare, to a meeting of the Industrial Commission, being chaired at that time by Governor and oil industry sycophant Jack Dalrymple. It didn’t fly—Dalrymple and the oil industry objected. And Stenehjem quickly backed away. Instead he proposed, and the Commission adopted, a “policy” of trying to keep the oil wells a mile away from the “extraordinary places,” except that the policy only applied to proposed wells on public land. And it did not have the force of law, so it had no teeth.

And so, proposals to put wells right up against national park borders or Lake Sakakawea’s shore were just fine with Stenehjem, Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring, the third member of the Industrial Commission, as long as they were on private land. Even those on public land only get a little scrutiny today, and can still be approved. Basically, it’s a policy with no teeth. Which is just what the oil industry likes.

And in the era of horizontal drilling, where wells can be placed anywhere and pipes run as far as three miles underground to get that oil, it didn’t take long for the oil industry to ferret out private landowners willing to take tens of thousands, often hundreds of thousands, of dollars for little pieces of land, for the placement of oil wells beside lakes, rivers, wildlife refuges and parks.

I was at the meeting when the “policy” was adopted, and I can assure you that no one there was surprised by Stenehjem’s retreat at Dalrymple’s insistence. We all knew that the oil and gas industry had contributed more than $600,000 to Dalrymple’s election campaign two years earlier, and their shill in the Governor’s office was not going to let them down.

Stenehjem and Goehring were richly rewarded by the industry in their subsequent election campaigns later in 2014. In early 2015, after they had been re-elected, Slawson Exploration submitted a request for a drilling permit for their Van Hook project, and it was approved by the same three men who had adopted the toothless policy a year earlier—Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring. Because Slawson had found, and rewarded handsomely, a landowner who had land right up to the lake, they were going to drill on private land and the “policy” didn’t apply to them.

They kept it pretty quiet, until the federal government issued a call for comments on the project last year, a necessary step because the government owns some of the oil under the lake. Slawson leased the drilling rights under the lake, and once Slawson had the minerals and a piece of private land on which to place the wells, there was no stopping them.

When the news got out last summer, the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County sent a letter to Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring asking them to order that the pad be moved back away from the lake. They never received a response.

Slawson did agree to a meeting with the Friends of Lake Sakakawea last summer. The group’s president, Terry Fleck, said the company agreed to move the well pad back “a considerable distance” from the lake. They left the meeting feeling they didn’t need to protest further.

Turns out that was a mistake. Slawson had a different definition of “considerable” than the Friends group had. Locals learned that only when the stakes for the pad went in this spring—less than a fifth of a mile from the boat ramp and just a few hundred yards from the trailers and lake homes in the resort.

Fleck, Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget, and a Mountrail County Commissioner all told me this spring that they had done everything legally possible to move the project away from the lake. But their hands were tied by the Industrial Commission.

When Slawson asked the county to upgrade the road to the site, the county basically told them to go jump in the lake. Slawson then built its own road to the site. And there are signs on both ends of the resort community telling Slawson to keep out of town. The sites are so close to the town though, that the noise from dirt work, drilling and well service operations will pretty much ruin the ambiance of the previously sleepy little community. And the lights from the 24-hour operation will eliminate the precious dark night skies that lake residents and campers have come to value.

And there’s more. When Slawson finished the dirt work on its pad at the boat ramp on the west side of the village this spring, it moved over to the other side and began building another one. That caught everyone by surprise. It seems that when they applied for the one at the boat ramp, they also applied for, and were granted, one on the east side of town, again just a few hundred yards from the shoreline and residences.

Here’s the drilling rig at work on the east side of Van Hook last week. At least three wells will go here, within a few hundred yards of Lake Sakakawea and the Van Hook community.

Through all the public furor and meetings with the Friends organization last year, the oil company never mentioned they were going to drill on both sides of the town.

It’s really hard to imagine what the Industrial Commission was thinking when they allowed the company to bookend the little resort community with oil wells. There’ll be at least 14 wells, possibly 17, and maybe a saltwater injection well, within shouting distance of the resort’s residents. The cacophony from the dirt work, then the drilling, with thousands of trucks hauling fracking water (I’ve read it takes a thousand truckloads of water to frack a well), and then the trucks to service the wells, is almost beyond comprehension. Not to mention the disaster if (when?) another blowout occurs.

According to a story in the Bismarck Tribune this spring, Slawson operates 300 wells in the Bakken, and has reported 142 oil fluid spills. They have been fined by the state of North Dakota in only five of those cases, by—you guessed it—the Industrial Commission, although the little fines the state issues are more of a bother than a financial burden to the company.

But the federal government didn’t let them off so easy. The EPA had to be called in to investigate numerous Clean Air Act violations, and they found Slawson had inadequate vapor control systems on its storage tanks at oil and natural gas well pads, resulting in an estimated 15,000 tons of methane and other poisonous gases per year being released into the clean North Dakota air.

Just last December, the EPA fined Slawson $2.1 million and is requiring the company to install $5.6 million worth of vapor control systems and gauges on its well sites here. That’s still small potatoes to the company though, just another cost of doing business. After all, Slawson will spend more than $100 million to develop the two Van Hook well sites.

Now, with the sellout of the community by the Industrial Commission a fait accompli, and with drilling underway, the county and the resort residents are putting together a list of things they’d like Slawson to do to try to mitigate some of the damage and danger to the lake and the resort community, and the chaos they are creating in this quiet little bay on Lake Sakakawea. We’ll know what those things are later this year. There are a couple things we know now, for sure, though. You can’t mitigate evil politicians. And you can’t mitigate oil company greed.

17 Responses

  1. Connie Moench

    This is really disturbing to see this happening to our cherished North Dakota recreational areas and lake communities. So much for watching out for the interests of citizens. Even worse, with this President and his administration of swamp monsters, it’s unlikely that there will be any checks and balances to such abuses.

  2. northwind

    This state is the most supportive of the oil companies!!!! They get away with murder and i guess people don’t care because they continue to vote party line and not for the person that would put the halt to all this kinda shit!!! We need to get these yahoos out of there that continue to support this scorch the earth behavior!! Our Republicans WILL continue to DESTROY DESTROY The ball is in OUR court all we have to do is VOTE THEM OUT!!!!!!!!!

    1. northwind

      because a land owner has there rights BUT if regulations were there THAT problem would be mute?? your thought would stop yourself from doing what you wanted with what you yourself own? REGULATION is the problem here!!!!

    2. Joan

      Doesn’t the mineral owners saying yes to oil development supercede the rights of the landowner saying no? My memory on this is unclear.

  3. Donna Kurszewski

    If there are marketable resources anywhere in North Dakota, the Big Boys will ‘take’ them with or without our permission. When mercenaries are the armies of combined government and industry there is very little the rest of us can do. I had a terrible insight come to me a couple of mornings ago whilst marveling over the lack of pollinators in my garden. When 5,000 United States Veterans came in late November 2016 to defend the constitutional right of the Indigenous People at Standing Rock to demand a voice in matters of grave concern to them, sold-out United States Veterans (TigerSwan) continued to manipulate local law enforcement (many also Vets) into using excessive force against those most impacted by Big Business interests. On the other hand, US Vets who honor their oath in upholding and defending the Constitution for the United States stood face-to-face against a mercenary army adept at manipulating hapless local law enforcement, complicit politicians & judges, and a thoroughly dumbed-down general ND population. The TigerSwan/Corporate model of ‘doing business’ is proliferating across this Nation and the World. Prayer – may in very deed – be our only Hope.

    1. northwind

      While i agree on the praying thought, We must realize i feel the Lord has already given us a mind and will and process to deal with the situation we are in!! HE(she)wants us to treat all people with the respect they deserve and VOTE on the entire picture of what is right for us ALL!! WE can no longer vote on a person because of one issue! These politicians use DIVIDE AND CONQUER and it’s working well for them. We need to look at how these a-holes voted before and not give them another chance if you see this kind of crap! IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO GET RID OF THE DIRTY GREEDY POLITICIANS

      1. Donna Kurszewski

        I agree with you, northwind, but I fear the entire political-economic system is rigged. It seems there are willing dupes waiting in line to have their vanities serviced. When a seemingly honest person runs for office, he/she is either ignored or ridiculed by the media. More often, the candidate left to us – who we imagine will best represent the interests of the voters – is transformed (post-election) into just another copy of the previous corrupt office holder. It’s ‘corruptible’ men & women who get their names on ballots. We DO need to be united in identifying the problem and planning a remedy. When I attend ‘public hearings’, I’m only one voice questioning why things are being done a certain way. I have been told to ‘shut-up or the sheriff will be called to escort me out of the meeting’. If there were many united voices, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to silence legitimate questions.

        1. northwind

          Agree 100% Money buys a lot this day and age! corruption is deep. that;s part of the problem .The law bought and paid for in SOME instances i feel. So i truly do agree 100%

  4. Donna Kurszewski

    Mr. Fuglie ~ Thank you, for your ongoing courage in bringing these critical issues to our attention. You carry the credentials needed to be a convincing voice!

  5. Joan

    This discourse is reminding me of US Gen.Smedley Butler, 1881-1940, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He talked about war being a racket and how during World War One at least 21,000, new Millionaires and billionaires were made in the US.

    We just keep learning the same lessons over and over and over again.

    1. Donna Kurszewski

      I’ve thought about Major General Smedley Butler quite often lately. Problem is, public school education does not include the most important history lessons in their curriculum!

  6. Charles J Taft

    Jim, has Slawson ever paid any of the fines to the state or to the US govt.?? Worth checking?? They don’t seem to be a very good neighbor.

  7. Al Ness

    In Third World Countries, where there is less of a police presence, the people meet up and stage a coup from time to time to let the ‘powers that be’ know that they will be removed (by force)if they start any shenanigans.
    Here in the USA, we still believe in Law and Order…and the dirty politicians have a team of lawyers who have a plan of action for every scenario, know that.
    So what can be done?
    Massive protests aren’t the same as they were 50 years ago. Maybe the Politicians don’t even care about protests anymore…or petitions…or…well, just about anything aside from their own glory, and great big stacks of the filthy lucre.
    Or, maybe the citizens are so inundated with endless information crafted to disguise and deceive, we have all become blase.
    So what can be done?
    What if we the people of North Dakota banded together and drafted legislation demanding that these big payouts to the politicians be outlawed altogether?
    Then again, they won’t pass that…and we can’t do anything about it either.
    Maybe convincing people to stop worshiping money could bring about change?
    Once again, that will never happen.
    Does anyone else see just how ‘trapped’ we are as ordinary citizens? The campaigns are a brain-washing spin-cycle of awesomeness vs. viciousness, their terms are marked with money, money, money, forever changing hands willy-nilly, laws are enacted for the benefit of the highest bidder, all while they smile, shake everyone’s hands, and tell us “everything is going great!”
    Rubbish!!
    In an earlier time, if someone was convicted of a crime, they would put them in a pillory for all to see and jeer at.
    It seems to me that the modern equivalent of that would have to be…billboards. Right there near the Capital, for all the citizens to see. Put their head in the stocks, and alert the public to their crimes.

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