A Simple Request To The Governor: Let’s Get Technical

Dear Governor Burgum,

I am writing to you today about transparency. Transparency in government. Transparency in North Dakota government. Transparency in North Dakota government as it relates to our environment and environmental protection. You’ve said often you believe in transparency. Here’s a chance to prove it.

You’re a new Governor this year, and you come from the world of high technology. You’ve got a couple of agencies which are operating at low technology. I’d like you to get them fixed. Because I’m not sure they aren’t trying to hide something from us by keeping their technology low. So I’m making two requests, Governor, to do a little technology upgrade.

The first is at the State Health Department. My friend Darrell Dorgan has been regularly critical of them for being too interested in the welfare of industry (read: Big Oil), at the expense of the environment. If you look at some of the stuff they do, you might think that’s the case. I’ve thought for a long time there are good people there who were being leaned on by Governors Hoeven and Dalrymple to be friendly to Big Oil, because that industry, with its boom, was punching their meal tickets during much of their administrations.

The jury’s still out on you, Doug Burgum. Will you let this agency operate as it should? Officially, they are our state’s representatives and enforcers for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing federal and state environmental regulations. But those regulations sometimes get in the way of the oil industry, and Hoeven and Dalrymple didn’t like that. I don’t know about you yet, Governor. You’re of their political party, but I don’t know if you’re of their ilk. I’ll know better if you respond to my two technology upgrade requests.

Here’s the first one.

The Health Department maintains a website database of what they call “Oilfield Environmental Incidents” in the oil patch. That’s bureaucratese for “spills.” It’s a big database, with records of more than 10,500 spills since January 1, 2008. Quick math—an average of a little over a thousand spills a year for the last ten years. Here’s the link to the website, so you can take a look for yourself.

If you go there, you’ll see a menu that lets you click on spills in the last 12 months, or spills occurring before that. If you go to one of those databases, you can click on the categories at the top, like the amount of oil spilled in each incident, or the amount of saltwater spilled, from the biggest spills to the smallest (you might have to click twice–they’re pretty cagey). You can click on the county link and find out how many of those incidents occurred in Billings County, or Williams County.

But what you can’t find out is how many of those spills were committed by a particular company. Because there’s no category for that. In order to find out who committed each spill, you have to click on every one of the 10,500 incident reports to find out what company is responsible for each spill.

I know from experience, for example, that there are a couple of companies, Oasis and Denbury, who have been particularly bad violators. In fact, I once wrote on this blog that it was time to kick Denbury out of the state because they were so bad and careless. That was 4 years ago—they’re still here. Their most recent spill was on October 5 of this year, when they spilled oil and salt water onto a pasture near Bowman. They still show up in the database on a pretty regular basis. But you have to look at every incident report to find them. 823 incidents this year. So far.

The thing is, there’s really no way of knowing, without looking at all 10,000 incident reports, who the really bad operators are. And that’s the way the industry wants it. Finding out that Denbury or Oasis or Continental (they seem to be the most recent bad company) has a hundred or two hundred or more spills would just not be good publicity.

And the Health Department has acquiesced to their wishes. Or, more likely, someone in Governor Hoeven or Dalrymple’s offices had sent word down to just leave that database the way it is. I talked off the record to a Health Department employee about a year ago and asked about this. He told me they wanted to fix it, and were going to ask for money from the Legislature in 2017 to make the database searchable. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

But now we’ve got a new Governor, and he’s a techie! I bet, Governor, if you sent one of your former Microsoft programmers over to the Health Department, they could make that database searchable in 15 minutes. If that’s something you wanted done.

So that’s my first request, Governor Burgum. Send someone to the Health Department and fix that database. They’re right over there on the second floor of the Judicial Wing of the Capitol Building. Heck, I bet they wouldn’t even have to go over there—they could probably do it from your office. Or from home.

So next time I write a story reporting that Belle Fourche Pipeline Company is still trying to clean up its 175,000 gallon spill into Ash Coulee Creek last December, I can also find out how many other spills they made since then. Oops, bad example. That one’s not in the database.

See, sometimes whoever happens to be in charge at the moment in the Health Department will, instead of creating an incident report in the oilfield spills database for a particularly egregious spill, like the Ash Coulee one last winter, they’ll instead put it over into a DIFFERENT database, called “General Environmental Incidents.”

I’ve never been able to figure out why they did that for Ash Coulee, because it was surely an “Oilfield Environmental Incident,” just like the one by Tesoro a couple years ago which spilled 20,600 barrels–865,000 gallons—up in Mountrail County. The only thing I can figure out is that Tesoro only reported they spilled 750 barrels, so it got listed as an oilfield incident, until a Health Department official discovered two months later that it was really more than 20,000 barrels. Oops. I guess 750 barrel spills get logged in as oilfield incidents, and spills like the Ash Coulee one, at 4,200 barrels, don’t.

It sure is harder to keep track of those things when you have to look through different databases. Oh, yeah. I get it.

Anyway, Governor Burgum, please put your programmer to work. Oh, and there’s one more thing I’d like you to take care of, while you’ve got your programmer available. That’s over at the State Water Commission website.

Since you’ve just signed a bill allowing industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River (if you haven’t already done so, you could read Amy Dalrymple’s (no relation to Jack) story about this in the Bismarck Tribune by clicking here), and because there are a lot of us who love that river and are concerned about it, we would kind of like to be able to keep track of how many water permits are being issued to take fracking water from the river, and where they are, and how much water they are taking.

Well, the Water Commission, like the Health Department, also maintains a database on its website, called “Water Permits Database” (you can find it here–down toward the bottom of the page), and, in theory, you could get that information from that database. Except you can’t. Because those water permits are not in the database. I know, because I know some of the people and companies who have been issued water permits, and they are not in the database.

Oh, the Water Commission does have a double secret way to find out who has industrial water permits, but you have to be a pretty good detective to find it. Well, I did a little detective work, with some urging from Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, who kept telling me “They don’t put it in the database, but it’s on the site, you just have to learn how to use the maps.”

Learn how to use the maps. Old dog, new trick. But I did it. It took me a few hours, because it is well hidden, so if you are nosy like me, I’m just going to give you a direct link (sort of) to go and look. Click here, and then go down to the bottom of the page and click on the artwork that says “Water Depots.” (Don’t click on the link that says Water Permits—you won’t find all the Little Missouri water permits there—only some of them.)

Once you’ve clicked on Water Depots, you have to figure out how to use the maps and the embedded database in them. First you take a tutorial, and learn to click on the little bar on the side of the page that says “Show layers,” and then about half an hour or so later you’ll find, for example, that a company named Streamline Water Services LLC has a permit to draw 233 million gallons of water (yes, you read that right) from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, on land owned by a rancher named Joe Schettler, between last December and next August. Your State Engineer, Governor, has authorized one company to take more than 200 million gallons of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River. Is there even that much water in the river, ever? Geez.

Joe Schettler’s Water Depot, in the center of the photo, hard against the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the top of the photo, courtesy of Google Earth. From here, the big trucks take water to the fracking sites.

Streamline has built a big water depot on Schettler’s land, alongside the Little Missouri. Joe also just happens to be Dunn County’s representative on the Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission. I’m not sure if Schettler is a partner in the company or not, but one way or another he’s making a lot of money from that water, which he gets pretty much for free—I think the water permit costs a couple hundred dollars.

But anyway, back to matters at hand. It would be pretty easy, Governor, for your Microsoft programmer to run those permits hidden on the map pages into the Water Permit Database, so we could keep track of them, instead of having to wander around that incredibly confusing map system. (I’m guessing, by the way, that the engineers over at the Water Commission are pretty disappointed that an English Major like me could figure out how to get this information.)

So that’s my second request, Governor. As soon as you’ve got that Health Department database cleaned up, how about fixing the Water Commission database too?

Thanks, in advance.

Jim

4 Responses

  1. Joan

    That kind of data would be awesome and very helpful for the media. Perhaps tht is why is it still under wraps? Also, checks out Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day on Facebook. It allows oilfield employees (or nyone) to post industry blunders anonymously and still keep their jobs.That has been a source for some print reporters in North Dakota. The truth shall indeed set us free.

  2. Brenda Jorgenson

    That is too good!  The truth of those webites as I know them!!!  Any information the Water Commission had was outdated from the 60’s and 70’s.  I talked to Doug Burgum about that when he was in Stanley at the drought meetings a couple months ago.  At that meeting, I learned that both Doug Burgum and Doug Goehring are on the State Water Commission (as well as both being on the State Industrial Commission). 

  3. Joan

    I am not optimistic that Gov. Burgum will help improve transparency of water and health department records. I would sure love to be proved wrong, but my impression is that the Republicans have essentially taken over state government in North Dakota over the last 15 years and my impression is that Burgum is following that lead.

    Just listened to an onpoint.org presentation on energy policy on WI Public Radio (11/14/17). I sure wish Prairie Public Radio offered this show.. Tom Ashbrook, who moderates Onpoint, is the best. You can listen to Onpoint live via the Internet. I recommend that everyone listen to the show; it offers a scary world view on U.S. energy policy that does not bode well for North Dakota’s future.

    Other thoughts:
    I want to read “Democracy in Chains” by Nancy MacLean, which is about how Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan, his libertarian beliefs that are backed by the Koch Brothers, and how that is all being untruthfully marketed as a pro-Republican stance. Absolutely twisted and fascinating.

    Just completed reading “Lakota Woman” by Mary Crow Dog of South Dakota, winner of the American Book Award. It humbled me, opened my eyes. I wonder if the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in 2016 was this Native American generation’s occupation similar to Wounded Knee.

    I fear that North Dakota’s resources, oil, water, will be stripped away and the state will be left with a polluted mess that is irreparable.

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