We Cleaned Up The Air But We Couldn’t Clean Up The Politicians

Let me start with this. I was sitting in my recliner last Sunday evening watching a rerun of the old Lawrence Welk show from the 1960s. It was one of Lawrence‘s “theme shows” and the theme this week was Los Angeles. As the show neared an end, after renditions of surfer songs and Hollywood movie themes, the band and singers were preparing for the closing song, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Some of you might know it. Willie Nelson recorded it a number of years ago. (Blue skies, Smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies. Do I see.) Here’s how Lawrence introduced the song.

“Los Angeles, like many of our big cities, has a problem with air pollution. So blue skies are not as common as they used to be. But we can still enjoy the song with this title.”

That show was recorded in the mid-60s, and it took me back to what I’m pretty sure was my first environmental awareness incident. It was December 1968, and I was flying into Los Angeles International Airport to report to my next U.S. Navy duty station near Los Angeles. As we approached all I could see out the window was a big brown cloud, and then we descended through it into L.A. I had never experienced smog before, but I was about to experience it for the next year or so, and it was pretty awful. Many days the city announced over radio and TV that there was a “smog alert” in effect, and pregnant women, small children and old folks were advised to stay indoors that day. Often for days on end.

As I was just about nearing the end my assignment there, I remember watching on TV on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1970, as President Richard Nixon, just down the road from me at his California office in San Clemente, signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. America’s 1970 New Year’s Resolution was to care for our environment. Later that year, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. A few years later we also had the Clean Water Act. So that was the response to concern shown all during the 1960’s about what we were doing to our environment. (And it’s kind of nice to know that there’s a generation of Americans, probably today’s college students, who grew up without the word SMOG in their vocabulary. I remember in his remarks President Nixon said this was going to take more than a federal government initiative—states were going to have to join in as well.

A couple of years later, when I arrived back in North Dakota, I found out my home state was facing environmental problems of its own. A coal boom had come to North Dakota. We were mining lignite coal and burning it to boil the water, to create the steam, to turn the turbines, to produce electricity, at big electric generating plants. And there were virtually no state environmental regulations to deal with it. My friend Mike Jacobs said in his book “One Time Harvest” that the coal industry had come west looking for three things: cheap coal, cheap water and cheap politicians. In North Dakota they found all three.” The Legislature, dominated by pro-business Republicans, had been caught sleeping at the switch when it came to regulating the energy industry, although, much like today’s oil boom, they didn’t seem to care much about it.

But later that year, in November of 1972, we elected a Governor who did care, Art Link. With his leadership over the next 8 years, we were able to enact the nation’s strictest mined-land reclamation laws, and surface owner protection laws. Those were two major concerns. Prior to Art Link’s time, the coal companies were just stripping off the topsoil, scooping up the coal, and leaving big open pits and big mounds of dirt all over what we called “coal country.” Some of those big dirt piles are still out there today, although now we call them “Wildlife Management Areas.”

I was a reporter for the Dickinson Press in 1974 when a company called Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company called a press conference in Dickinson, to announce they were going to build 23 coal gasification plants in western North Dakota, using huge amounts of water and coal to turn lignite into liquid natural gas.  And that’s when North Dakota’s environmental community really formed. Local farmers and ranchers whose operations were threatened by coal mines and gasification plants, spurred on by a bunch of young environmental organizers, formed a group called United Plainsmen to fight back and protect their land, water and air. (Incidentally, that group lives on today, under the name of the Dakota Resource council, and is still the leading environmental voice in North Dakota.) The coal gasification company needed water permits from the state to get the huge amounts of water required for their process. Governor Link chaired the State Water Commission, and he and Agriculture commissioner Myron Just came up with the idea of attaching conditions to those permits to regulate things that state law didn’t cover. Well, that slowed the process down enough to let the Legislature pass some laws, finally, and the end result was that instead of 23 plants, they build one plant, about half the size of what they had proposed originally. Well, it turned out that the gas they produced cost more than it was worth, so it had to be federally subsidized, and no more plants were ever built. Link coined the phrase “cautious, orderly development,” and that’s what we got from the coal industry. It worked. Today, while we still have only that one gasification plant, a total of nine power plants in 5 different locations produce about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to heat and light all the homes in Minnesota and North Dakota. But that happened over a period of about 15 years. And for the first time since the 1930’s, North Dakota gained population in the 1970s.

We went through a minor oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was so short-lived that we never really experienced huge environmental problems. Because this was before the advent of fracking, much of the drilling activity took place in shallower rock formations, so most of the impact was in the Bad Lands, south of the area where most of the drilling is taking place today. They did some damage, leveling buttes and building roads for their drilling rigs, but it could have been worse. Like today, the price of oil dropped drastically in the mid-1980s, and drilling here became unprofitable, and we had a typical boom and bust. The price of oil, which had climbed to over $100 a barrel in 1980, dropped below $30 in 1986. Bust. For many years you could see bumper stickers on pickups in the western part of the state that read “Lord please let there be just one more boom. This time I promise I won’t piss it away.”

Well, we got it. A perfect storm hit 20 years later—a steep increase in price of oil and the development of the new technology called fracking. As the value of a barrel of oil climbed back over $100 in 2007, the expensive fracking process became feasible and the result is the today’s boom—although we’re currently experiencing a mini-bust, with prices hovering right around the $50 mark right now. No one knows what’s going to happen next, but everyone except the oil industry and the politicians knows that severe damage has already been done.

Western North Dakota is experiencing an environmental disaster like no one could ever have imagined. Because, like in the 1970’s coal boom, the industry has come here looking for cheap politicians, and this time they have found them. This time, there is no Art Link. This time, the politicians, led by our Governor, are so desperate for anything that might turn our economy around, they simply turned North Dakota over to the oil industry and went and buried their heads in the sand.

I’m mostly concerned about the environment, so I’m not going to deal with all the social problems that accompanied a boom like no state has ever experienced before. Crime, drugs, prostitution, traffic accidents, housing shortages, skyrocketing prices for everything that only people making oil field wages can afford. The Bismarck Tribune reported this week that the Williston Police Department is averaging 3.6 felony arrests every day right now. Three or four felony arrests every day. Ten years ago they maybe had 3 or 4 a week, if that.

I’m going to deal with two of the environmental issues we’re facing today..    First, trains.

Oil companies like dealing with the railroads when it comes to shipping their oil to refineries. There are some big pipelines, and more are proposed, but trains can go anywhere–pipelines only go in a straight line to one destination. So much of the oil being shipped out of state today goes by train. The problem is, Bakken crude is very volatile, and state regulators refuse to inspect the trains to see what is in those oil tankers, and they refuse to make the oil companies treat the oil to make it less explosive. Just this week, the Legislature killed a proposal to add state inspectors to the Public Service Commission’s staff, because the oil industry doesn’t want them. The result is, hardly a month goes by without a train derailing and exploding into a huge fireball somewhere in North America. The first one was in a small town in Quebec, and it killed 43 people. Since then, most have been in isolated rural areas, so no one has been killed, but the environmental damage has been huge When tanker trains derail, the tanker cars have a tendency to burst, and if they don’t catch on fire,  that oil goes into whatever is beside the tracks—lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests, schoolyards . . .   .

The other issue is spills. Because the state lacks inspectors to look at every gathering pipeline and drilling site to make sure the oil companies are doing things safely, we’re spilling highly toxic oil and saltwater all over the western part of the state. Because when oil comes up out of the ground, toxic saltwater, called brine, comes up with it, and the brine has to be disposed of. Generally, it is pumped back underground into deep wells drilled for that purpose. The problem is getting the brine to those wells. It goes by gathering pipelines and trucks, and no one is inspecting those pipelines and trucks to see if they are safe. The result is spills, and when the brine and oil spills, it kills everything it comes in contact with—plants, animals, fish and birds.

So here’s how our politicians have responded to this problem: Instead of hiring a big field staff to inspect things, they hired a few inspectors who go to the site of each spill AFTER THEY HAPPEN and say “Yep, that’s a spill, clean it up.” And that’s it.  Until a year and a half ago, no one even kept track of how many of these things there were. But after a huge spill up in northwest North Dakota, the public became so enraged that the State Health department built a website that lists every spill that takes place these days.

Well, I took a look at that website this week. I looked at every day for the past year. Here’s what I found. You have to go all the way back to June 28, 2014 to find a day without a spill somewhere in oil patch. That’s 291 consecutive days. And it wasn’t just one spill most days. In that 291 days there were a total of 1605 spills. That’s an average of more than 5 a day. The biggest was 3 million gallons of brine spilled into a creek north of Williston. That creek runs into a river which runs into Lake Sakakawea. That’s an environmental disaster. Because in addition to the damage to the plant and aquatic life, most of western North Dakota gets its drinking water from Lake Sakakawea.

In the 365 days leading up to Tuesday, there were 1,995 spills, an average of almost 6 a day.

Those are spills that, for the most part, could be prevented if the state, which is collecting billions of dollars in oil taxes each year, hired inspectors to make the oil industry clean up its act. But our politicians refuse to do that. Why? Partly because the oil industry has contributed so much money to our elected officials for their campaigns that they virtually own the politicians, from the governor on down. In 2012, the oil industry pumped more than half a million dollars into the governor’s campaign, enough to guarantee themselves that they could keep him in office.

Sadly, there is no Art Link today to step in and put the brakes on this rampant environmental disaster. Like the 1970’s, Art Link would not have stopped the oil industry from succeeding here. He simply would have slowed them down until regulators could catch up and protect our environment.

I want to close this with some words from Art Link. In one of his most famous speeches, given to the annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperatives in the early days of the coal boom, in 1973, this great Governor said this:

We do not want to halt progress. We do not plan to be selfish and say “North Dakota will not share its energy resources.”

          No . . . we simply want to insure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.

          And when we are through with that, and the landscape is quiet again, when the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar

          And when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain

          Let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say “Our grandparents did their job well. This land is as good as, and in some cases, better than before.

          Only if they can say this will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Well, We Were Warned . . .

Here’s an updated version of a story I wrote here a month or so, and for Dakota Country magazine’s current issue.  

Now we know that there will be no bighorn sheep season in North Dakota this year, for the first time since 1983. Nor will there be one in the foreseeable future.

So, add bighorn sheep to the list that already includes mule deer does and sage grouse.

In addition, like last year, there will be only a limited pronghorn antelope season in just one small area of the southern Bad Lands, with antelope season closed again in the rest of the state, and there will be only a limited mule deer buck season.

Both elk and moose licenses are down significantly in recent years. Elk licenses are down almost 50 per cent since 2010, although some of that can probably be attributed to the elk reduction program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We’ll see how that plays out over the next few years. Moose licenses are down 25 per cent since 2010.

And whitetail deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

But back to the bighorns. The Game and Fish Department said in early March that because of the big die-off of bighorn sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, mostly legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep pretty good track of the critters.

Rubber tire disease claimed so many a couple of years ago  that Game and Fish actually had to pick up and move the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

And then, the biologists tell us, the sheep aren’t making babies like they need to be, to sustain a population.

It’s not like we weren’t warned. We were told to expect this in the now infamous 2011 report titled “Potential Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on Select North Dakota Natural Resources.” That report was completed in 2010 and sat on a shelf for almost a year at the direction of someone at a higher pay grade than the Game and Fish Director, until it was leaked to some bloggers and revealed to the public. When it was finally released, we learned that a select team of dedicated Game and Fish Department biologists had done in-depth studies on what was likely to happen, soon, in North Dakota. The very first paragraph of the report says “As the footprint of oil development expands and the cumulative impacts to natural resources such as water supplies and wildlife habitat increase, maintaining the sustainability of our rich natural resources will become increasingly challenging.”

No shit, Sherlock.

It turns out that even that warning was vastly understated. But the biologists knew that. Here’s how they concluded the various chapters in the study:

  • “Interest in hunting bighorn sheep in North Dakota is astounding when compared to other states. For instance, in 2010 there were 11,417 applicants for just five available lottery licenses, more than Wyoming and Idaho combined. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with a growing O/G industry could come with a very high cost – namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • “Elk are a valued big game species by the residents of North Dakota. Each year, over 10,000 North Dakotans apply for a once?in?a?lifetime license to hunt elk with a gun. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost, namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations which are so highly valued by the state’s citizens. A disproportionate amount of oil development occurs on public land and increased development will further degrade habitat quality and reduce quality of outdoor experiences on these lands. The projected level of additional development and associated effects to the habitat makes it is highly unlikely that current population levels could be sustained in the future.” 
  • “There is a great Interest in hunting mule deer in North Dakota. In 2009 10,568 hunters applied for the 2, 886 antlered mule deer licenses that were issued by the department. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a cost; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of primary habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development that sustains the wildlife populations that are so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • There are an estimated 110,000 hunters in North Dakota; of these hunters more than 94,000 (85%) hunt deer.  More North Dakotans engage in deer hunting than any other shooting sport. It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development. These critical habitat components support many species of wildlife that are highly valued by the state’s citizens.”

As we read through the 120 page report, seven times we read that warning: “It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development.”

            Seven times.

Well, here we are, five years after that report was written, four years after it was released, and everything the biologists told us was true. Especially about bighorns. I won’t quote from it extensively—you can get a copy from Game and Fish and read it yourself if you want to, or by simply clicking here—but I’ll share just this one sentence about bighorns, and then a summary.

“North Dakota’s bighorn sheep habitat is considered marginal, as it falls within the eastern edge of bighorn range.”

In spite of that, Game and Fish has done what it could to introduce and protect this magnificent species here. And without oil development, maybe they could have succeeded. But the rest of the section on bighorns can be summarized in one more short sentence:

Bighorns and oil can’t co-exist.

The announcement by Game and Fish in March that there would be no bighorn season laid the blame directly on a die-off of the herd from pneumonia. Mostly likely from exposure to a herd of domestic sheep. Well, that’s the instant cause. But what they weren’t saying is that pneumonia was the straw that broke the camel’s (bighorn’s) back. It was the accumulation of all the things they warned us about in 2011, followed by a pneumonia outbreak, that did the sheep in. At least that’s what I think.

Each section of the 2011 report concluded with a section on “mitigation.” The boom is coming, they said, so here’s what we have to do to mitigate the damage it will cause. Here’s how the section on mitigation for bighorn sheep began:

“Mitigation measures are very limited regarding O/G activities within North Dakota’s bighorn sheep range because bighorn are a wilderness species requiring very specific, irreplaceable habitat characteristics to persist, with lambing habitat being the key component for the sustainability of a population . . .  O/G activities in North Dakota that do not address disturbance near critical lambing areas will undoubtedly have deleterious effects on the state’s bighorn population. Therefore, every effort should be made to reduce disturbance near lambing areas in order prevent a change in bighorn distribution, abandonment of suitable habitat, or alterations in activity patterns.”

Well, nobody listened. The oil boom went on, unchecked, as the biologists sat and wept. Figuratively, if not literally.

I can tell you, the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about sage grouse for Dakota Country magazine, one of the biologists, said “This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad. Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells.”

But they aren’t giving up. I know that, at the staff level, they are doing as much as  they can to work with the industry, the mineral owners and the landowners, as well as other government agencies, to protect the critters. They have written a much shorter report called “Recommended Management Practices For Reducing Oil and Gas Impacts to Wildlife” which outlines the things that should be done–things they would like to do–to protect wildlife and its habitat. Read it here. It’s just two pages. But it’s another of those documents, I’m afraid, that nobody beyond the staff level is paying any attention to.

Finally, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of the 2011 report. It came at the end of a detailed and somewhat technical 120 page document, and was mostly overlooked (although, to be fair,the whole report has been generally overlooked), and it contains one of the  scariest warnings I’ve seen issued by a North Dakota government agency since the boom began:

“The impacts of oil and gas development on people utilizing natural resources in North Dakota may not be fully realized for some time.  The diminished enjoyment of our natural resources will not take place overnight, but rather over the course of many years.  North Dakota currently has such high quality natural resources, considerable deterioration could occur before user groups realize the full extent of their loss.  They will have no past reference to measure the quality that will have been lost.”

That’s the very end of the report. The last word.  And it kind of describes one of those “put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat” scenarios. Looking back at it now, it is remarkably accurate in its warning. A slow, gradual erosion of our outdoor resource experience is going on here. We’re finally starting to notice. But if you’re a hunter, go back and look at the numbers.Compare 2005 and 2015.  We’ve chipped away at everything. Deer. Antelope. Elk. Moose. Pheasants. Sage Grouse. Sharptail Grouse. And Bighorn Sheep.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Farmers Union, Politics, Pigs and Pork

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally Friday on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. Their interest in that measure was the fear–completely unfounded–that “big out-of-state conservation organizations” would buy up farmland in competition with farmers. Of course, the anti-corporation farming law they are now about to defend would have prevented that, but it was a line that a lot of people–including many Farmers Union members–bought into, and they carried that fear to the voting booth.

I’d have sworn I heard a reference to that from Farmers Union President Mark Watne yesterday, but I was listening with one ear while someone else was talking in the other (a dangerous thing for someone my age), so this morning I checked with others who were there and I guess I was wrong. So anyone who read this yesterday (Friday) needs to know that. At the bottom of today’s entry, I’ve posted some remarks from former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, who took exception to some of the things I said in yesterday’s blog post. Robert and I have been friends for many years, and we spoke on the phone this morning,  and this won’t affect our friendship. But his roots go deep in the Farmers Union, much deeper than mine, and his words are to be taken seriously.

In his remarks below, Robert says about Measure 5 “I voted for it because as poorly drafted as it was, it was the only choice to put some needed money into recreation and conservation.” Well, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I felt exactly the same as Robert, and like him, I held my nose and voted yes. I have faulted the sponsors who drafted such a bad measure almost as much as the lying liars at the Chamber of Commerce and the Petroleum Council for the measure’s overwhelming defeat.

That coalition, which also included the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at Friday’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm.

Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number was slashed by the House of Representatives to $40 million. And yesterday, I am told, the Senate Natural Resources Committee cut it back to $30 million. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $30 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $50 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives, and far short of what voters were promised if they defeated Measure 5.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts. Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that. If they do that, and the Senate committee’s recommendation stands, there will be less than $20 million available in the next biennium, not the $50 million we were promised.

State agencies in the past have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, but he is loyal, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Good Luck, Farmers Union (And Other Sort-Of Related Items)

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally today on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. It might have been better if the Farmers Union President Mark Watne had not referenced that as a victory in front of Friday’s crowd–about half of them were on the other side of that measure, and it opened some not-so-old wounds.

That coalition, which included, among others, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at today’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those three groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

Emboldened by the millions of dollars supplied by Big Oil to defeat Measure 5 last year, those three conservative organizations are still grinning over the naivete of Watne and his board of directors who bit, hook, line and sinker, into the ugly campaign to defeat Measure 5.  I suspect the Farmers Union is about to be on the receiving end of what it participated in handing out to conservation groups last year. It’s going to be a lesson hard-learned.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm. Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number has already been slashed by the Legislature to $40 million, and may go lower before this Session is over. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $40 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $60 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts.  Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that.

Well, yeah, but state agencies have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

But hey, promises were made.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Sometimes You Have To Be Careful What You Ask for

Tomorrow is the deadline for people to apply to become the next Chancellor of the North Dakota Higher Education system. Given the chaos that exists in the state’s higher education system right now, I’ll almost be surprised if anyone applies. I said almost. Because anyone who does apply will surely be well-educated and reasonably intelligent, and so even though they know they will be working for a dysfunctional board and they know that two of the last three chancellors didn’t last long and left under clouds of controversy, they also know that those two left with nice little buyout packages that enabled them to take a little time off and relax before jumping into a new career.

Former chancellor Dr. Robert Potts came out on the losing end of a spat with the president of NDSU and resigned, taking with him a buyout of about a quarter of a million dollars. He moved on to the Arkansas university system and is  now retired, I think.  Former legislator Bill Goetz then served out the last few years of his public service career before retiring and turning the job over to Dr.  Hamid Shirvani, who did much better financially than his predecessors, departing in 2013 with a buyout of his entire contract, about $925,000 cash in his pocket. He apparently hasn’t been so lucky in re-establishing himself in the academic world.

My friend Dr. Larry Skogen, who was serving as President of Bismarck State College, stepped up in mid-2013 and has been running the North Dakota University System about as well as anybody has ever done while the SBHE searches for a permanent chancellor, but he wants to go back to being a college president and will do so on July 1 unless the list of applicants for the job is so thin that the board convinces him to take the chancellor’s job. Could happen.

One whose name won’t be on the applicants list is Dr. Shirvani, although from what I hear, his name is on other application forms around the country. Which brings me to the point of this blog.

I got a call from a North Dakota legislator this week who told me Dr. Shirvani is having a hard time finding a job. He left with the $925,000 buyout in June of 2013, so maybe the bank account is getting a little light.  According to his Wikipedia page, which I have to say is one of the more amazing self-written Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen, Dr. Shirvani is “currently a Senior Fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.” I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about, so I went to their website, but they don’t seem to know him. I typed his name into their search engine, but he doesn’t show up on their website. I suppose that’s just an oversight and only means that either AASCU or Dr. Shirvani has not updated their website lately.

Anyway, the reason for the call was to tell me that Dr. Shirvani felt that a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago as Dr. Shirvani was leaving his job here was preventing him from getting a new job. And he would like it if I would remove that particular post from my blog. Really.

Well, I said, I couldn’t recall what I had said on that blog, but I would take a look at it and get back to him, adding that I wasn’t sure what kind of job Dr. Shirvani was looking for, but I was pretty doubtful that people who hire college presidents and chancellors and positions of that ilk really take time to read The Prairie Blog.

So this morning I finally got around to looking at that blog post, from June 3, 2013 (I was busy yesterday putting together a new gas grill that said on the box “some assembly required”). What I found was that I had written about the dysfunctionality of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE), with a reference to the fact that Dr. Shirvani was their latest victim, and quoting from an earlier blog I had written when Dr. Shirvani first arrived here. That blog post referred to a story out of a California newspaper about the controversy that erupted when Dr. Shirvani hired Sarah Palin to speak at a fundraiser at the university he was running in California, which got him a no-confidence vote from his faculty. But other than that reference, and what I thought was a nice picture of Dr. Shirvani with his arm around Sarah Palin (you’ll notice if you look at his Facebook page he likes to put his arm around pretty women), that post was about the incompetence of the SBHE, which had led to the North Dakota Legislature’s goofy proposal to replace the board with a full-time, 3-member commission, an idea which was soundly trounced by North Dakota voters last November.

I can only surmise that it is the Shirvani-Palin photo which is giving the former chancellor heartburn as he seeks new employment. Because I certainly didn’t say anything disparaging about Dr. Shirvani in that blog post. You can read it yourself if you want.

So I politely informed the Legislator who had called me with the request that I didn’t see a good reason to take that down from my website. Not mentioning anything about the ethics of doing something like that, or even making a request to do something like that. It’s interesting that on the Internet, you can actually make a story disappear. You can’t “unprint” a newspaper, but you can “unprint” a web post. Well, thanks, but no thanks.

I did take the time, while I was online this morning looking at the blog, to take a good look at the amazing Wikipedia page of Dr. Shirvani’s. And after reading it, (including the sentence in which he declares himself a “devote” Catholic) I cannot figure out why he can’t get hired. It is really, really impressive. According to it, he’s not just a Fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities—he’s a Fellow in a lot of places. Here’s an excerpt:

“Sir Hamid Shirvani is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, Recipient of Special Commendation by the American Institute of Architects (2003) for his contributions in the fields of architecture and urban design, Recipient of the Seikyo Culture Award of Japan (1999) and is listed in the “Who’s Who in the World.” Sir Hamid Shirvani has lectured at 27 international and 48 U.S. universities, several dozen public and private agencies, and professional societies.” 

Holy Cow! He’s a “Sir.” I never knew that! I wondered, how do you become a “Sir?” Well, the short answer is, you apply for it, on the website of the Royal Society of Arts. It’s a short process, with just three pages, titled “Your Details,” “Your Application” and “Your Payment.” You pay an entry fee of 75 pounds sterling (it is, after all, a British society—we don’t have organizations that make you “Sirs” in this country) and another 165 pounds sterling a year, and you have to pass some sort of screening committee, which means you have to have done something to earn the right to be called “Sir.” You and the other 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames” worldwide. Quite an exclusive club, whose members include some of these people you might recognize: Judi Dench, John Diefenbaker, Anthony Armstrong Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon (remember him? He was married to Princess Margaret), Alfred Dunhill (the Dunhill Tobacco guy), Ian McEwan, George Washington Carver (apparently the Society has been around for a while), Stephen Hawking, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. And then about 26,000 names you might not recognize, like Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws;  Anthony FitzClarence, 7th Earl of Munster; Trixie Gardner, Baroness Gardner of Parkes; and John Stevens, Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, among others. I couldn’t find Hamid Shirvani on the list I looked at on Wikipedia, but, it was only a partial list—I am sure 27,000 names is too many to list on one website. 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames.” Pretty exclusive company, eh?

As for that “Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science,” title, well, I was curious about that too, so I looked them up. Their website says  “The World Academy of Art and Science is composed of 730 individual Fellows from diverse cultures, nationalities, and intellectual disciplines, chosen for eminence in art, the natural and social sciences, and the humanities.”

Cool. A much more exclusive club. Except that they do list all 730 members on their website, and there’s no one named Shirvani on it. Probably needs to be updated too. Oh, I checked, and Sarah Palin wasn’t there either.  Good news, though. I did find Dr. Shirvani on the Who’s Who in the World list (go ahead, take a peek), just like he said. Along with 1,499,999 other really important people. Including Sarah Palin.

Well, anyway, with credentials like that, Dr. Shirvani shouldn’t have trouble finding work. I wish him well. And I’ll be checking the traffic on that June 3, 2013 blog post of mine. Hope my server holds up.

P.S. If you want to see the most impressive Facebook page ever, check out the page for Dr. Hamid Shirvani. Don’t leave out the title–there are quite a few Hamid Shirvani’s, but none of the rest are “Dr.’s.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

So Long, Bighorn Sheep

 

I learned about this earlier in the week, but today it became official, when my copy of North Dakota Outdoors arrived in the mail: Add Bighorn Sheep to the list of species for which there will be no hunting season in North Dakota this year. Or for the foreseeable future. At least not likely in my lifetime.

The Game and Fish Department announced this week that because of the big die-off of Bighorn Sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown. This is the first year since 1983 there will be no Bighorn season.

Bighorns join Mule Deer does and Sage Grouse as species which will not be hunted here. In addition, like last year, there will be a severely reduced Mule Deer buck season and a limited Pronghorn Antelope season in just one small area of the extreme southern Bad Lands, with Antelope season closed again in the rest of the state.

Moose licenses are down about 40 per cent from five years ago. Likewise Elk. Moose licenses in the Oil Patch units are down 50 per cent.

And Whitetail Deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, all legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For Bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn  for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep   pretty good track of the critters.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he's grown up and still hanging around.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he’s grown up and still hanging around.

And its not just pneumonia. The sheep are getting hit by trucks along the main highway through the Oil Patch, Highway 85, and the gravel roads leading up to it as well, taking a further toll on the population. Just about exactly two years ago this week, Game and Fish said they had lost six rams to collisions with vehicles along Highway 85 and had moved the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

Since 1986, the beginning of the CRP program, North Dakota has been a hunter’s paradise. Now it is a totally screwed up disaster. And it’s not just the species I’ve lready mentioned that are hurting. Add Pheasants, Sharptail Grouse and Hungarian Partridge to the list.  Game and Fish blames a lot of it on three bad winters a few years back, and loss of habitat with the disappearance of CRP. I agree, but I’ll add one more reason they don’t like to talk about: the Oil Boom. I’m adding it because the loss or decline of most of these seasons and species is taking place in Oil Country. That’s no secret, and that’s no coincidence.

I can tell you the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about Sage Grouse for Dakota Country Magazine, which you can read on my blog by going here, one of the biologists, who gave me permission to use his name, although I didn’t, told me “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” That was a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist. He was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. And I don’t blame him. These biologists, more than any of us can imagine, really CARE about the critters.  His job is becoming almost impossible.

He didn’t list all the other species who are hurting, but I’ve listed them above.

There are some really big losers with this latest turn of events. First, we’re losing one of our most spectacular species. Losing any species is a disaster. Losing this one is hard for a couple more reasons:  There are four North Dakotans who might have been able to spend their autumn in the Bad Lands hunting for a Bighorn Sheep this year, but won’t get a chance. They may never get another chance. But bigger than that, the Department has donated one license each year to the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) to be sold at their annual banquet as a fundraiser. That has been bringing in about $75,000 a year for FNAWS. And FNAWS has been pumping money back into the state to help our sheep program here. That’s gone now.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Another Black Eye for North Dakota

Here’s an update to a post I wrote last night regarding North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring. Thanks to Valerie Barbie-Bluemle for pointing this out to me this morning. You can read yesterday’s post by going here.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General released its report Monday which tells why they will resume federal inspections of pesticides in North Dakota. It is a short report—take less than five minutes to read—but it is a damning one for North Dakota, and casts our state in a very bad light in the eyes of the nation.

Monday, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring told the Forum News Service’s Johnathan Knutson that state Agriculture Department officials are enforcing state and federal pesticide requirements, and public safety isn’t at risk, and that the Department will continue to implement state and federal law.

Well, here’s what the Inspector General’s office had to say about that:

“EPA Region 8 staff stated that FIFRA inspections have not been conducted because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The failure to conduct inspections increases the risk that pesticides are not in compliance with federal law, which could result in potential risks from toxics being undetected and adverse human health and environmental impacts occurring.”

Further:

“Since 2011, EPA Region 8 has also failed to conduct inspections of pesticides imported into North Dakota. Since that time, approximately 1,300 pesticide imports to the United States have come through North Dakota and none have been inspected. EPA Region 8’s failure to inspect imported pesticides to ensure compliance with federal law creates a potential risk not only for residents in North Dakota but residents in other states and locations in the United States.”

I’m going to just post relevant excerpts from the Inspector General’s report here. But let me point out a couple things in summary that I did not know yesterday when I wrote my initial story.

The reason the EPA requires federal inspections here is that we have pesticides coming into North Dakota from Canada. Canada has different pesticide regulations than we do, so we need to be sure pesticides coming from there meet our federal requirements for safety. The EPA provides funding to North Dakota to conduct these inspections for them. I don’t know how much we get each year–Douglas would know that. The inspector General’s report says that every state must have at least one federally-certified inspector. North Dakota has not had one since 2013. You will note that the EPA has not yet cut off our funding, in spite of the fact we do not have anyone certified here. I suspect that is a matter of time. Probably a short time, since we’ve been busted now.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the report. You can read the whole thing by going here.

            “The last FIFRA import inspection conducted by a Region 8 inspector in North Dakota was in 2010. Since 2011, the EPA has received approximately 1,300 notices that pesticides were coming into North Dakota from other countries and none have been inspected, according to the region’s data. EPA Region 8 staff explained that FIFRA import inspections are “inspections of opportunity.”  Failure to conduct import inspections increases the risk that pesticide products entering the United States through North Dakota are not in compliance with FIFRA rules for registration, labeling and sampling to verify the compound matches its label. Also, without such inspections, residents in other states and locations in the United States in addition to North Dakota could be at risk.

             “EPA Region 8 staff stated that producer establishment and import inspections have not been conducted in North Dakota because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The North Dakota Director of the Pesticides and Fertilizer Division asserted that its state producer establishment inspections were sufficient to ensure FIFRA compliance, and that Region 8 officials were also in agreement. However, EPA Region 8 has the responsibility to conduct FIFRA producer establishment and import inspections in all of Region 8’s states, including North Dakota. The state’s preference that federal inspections not be carried out in North Dakota should not be accepted by Region 8.”

            “North Dakota does not currently have a federal-credentialed state inspector and has not had one since the inspector with credentials retired in 2013.  A 2013 EPA memorandum on this issue states, “due to the interstate nature of FIFRA, it would be inefficient to have a state-by-state, patchwork approach to inspection authorities and especially detrimental should there be an exigent need for Federal inspection. Therefore, all State Lead Agencies must have at least one inspector with a Federal credential.” The same 2013 memorandum regarding the use of credentials by state inspectors says that “the failure to have at least one inspector with a Federal credential may affect inspection-related funding under a cooperative agreement.” ” EPA Region 8 has not reduced funding under the Region 8 cooperative agreement with North Dakota since the position’s vacancy in 2013.”

            This is another black eye for North Dakota. At a time when we are being criticized all across the country for our lax regulation of the oil industry, in the wake of huge fireball explosions when tanker trains are involved in derailments, we don’t need more of this kind of publicity. We need to get in compliance, both in federal pesticide inspection and in oil train safety. It is getting to be embarrassing to be from North Dakota.

Shame on our elected officials.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Douglas Goehring and The EPA: The Real Story

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring is all over the news media this week saying he was “blindsided” by the EPA. Looks to me like he was just blind. And pretty stupid too, and now he’s going to cost the U.S. taxpayers a bunch of money, if the EPA has to send in a team of federal pesticide inspectors to do what he’s supposed to be doing for the taxpayers and farmers of North Dakota.

Douglas, Douglas, Douglas. Whatever are you thinking?

It seems the Commissioner got a notice this week after an EPA audit that said “EPA Region 8 (which includes North Dakota) is not conducting inspections at establishments that produce pesticides in North Dakota. Further, North Dakota does not have a state inspector with qualifications equivalent to a federal inspector to conduct inspections on the EPA’s behalf.” As a result, “EPA pesticide inspections must resume in North Dakota to determine compliance and protect human health and the environment,” the EPA said in an audit.

Douglas blamed everyone from President Obama on down, calling the EPA “politically motivated” and telling The Forum’s Jonathan Knutson “I get the feeling the White House isn’t very happy with us. Maybe EPA isn’t very happy with us because we’ve pushed back on some issues.”

What a load of crap. Truth is, Douglas screwed up, and he got caught. No amount of railing against the federal government is going to change that.

When I read the story, it said that “federal inspections of establishments that produce pesticides in North Dakota have not occurred for 14 years.” Well, I was taken aback by that, because two of my good friends were federally-trained pesticide inspectors for former Commissioner Roger Johnson for years, and my friend Jeff Weispfenning was Deputy Commissioner for nine of those years, and he would have never let such a thing happen.

Jeff cleared it up in a Facebook post today. All the time Roger and he were running the department, they sent their state pesticide inspectors to federal pesticide school, and they got their federal credentials to carry out federal inspections, and did so under an agreement with the EPA. So, technically there hasn’t been a federal inspector here for 14 years—the first 9 under Johnson, the last 5 under Douglas. But there were federal inspections under Johnson, carried out by federally-certified state inspectors.

Roger and Jeff left the State Ag Department nearly six years ago now, and apparently the stories you read about 70 percent employee turnover in the Ag Department in that time are true, because now none of the department’s handful of pesticide inspectors has federal credentials. Thus, no agreement with EPA to carry out their federal inspections.

Jeff went and read the same audit Douglas did. He says “The audit pinpoints that since 2013, the Ag Department hasn’t had any pesticide inspectors with federal credentials. For some unknown reason the current Agriculture Commissioner didn’t continue with the federal credentials for the pesticide inspectors. This means there haven’t been ‘federal’ inspections since 2013.”

So here’s the bottom line: up until 2013, when the last pesticide inspector with federal credentials was not replaced, there was no problem, and there was no cause for an audit finding. Somebody screwed up, and that somebody is the current Ag Commissioner, who didn’t think the federal EPA credentials for his staff were a big deal.

Well, it turns out they were a big deal. All 50 states have to have federally-certified inspectors to inspect pesticide facilities. That’s the law. Laws are made by Congress, not the White House or the EPA. In most states, to save the federal government some money and avoid duplication of effort (there are state pesticide inspection laws that must be followed as well, so the states have their own inspectors to do that), the state has their inspectors federally certified and the same inspectors fulfill the requirements of both state and federal laws.

Douglas turned a blind eye, and as inspectors hired by Johnson left their jobs (apparently a hundred per cent turnover in that division of the department in just five years) he didn’t send their replacements to school to get the federal certification. That’s taking his disdain for the federal government just a bit too far—he’s an elected state official, and he needs to get his politics out of the way when it comes to the serious business of keeping our farmers and our consumers safe. If it’s not politics, then he’s just plain stupid for not doing his job. Those are the only two possibilities here. I’ll let him choose whichever one he’s comfortable with.

Or maybe the $8,500 in campaign contributions he got last year from Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science—three of the world’s largest ag chemical companies—had something to do with it.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Another Oil “Boom”

North Dakota’s oil boom was built on the back of lax regulation of the oil industry.           Period.

When Jack Dalrymple takes credit for the oil boom, let’s remind him:

The train that blew up in West Virginia Monday did not have to blow up. It could have derailed without blowing up. It’s easy to blame the railroad—they should have safer cars, right?

Well, not in this case.  The train was using model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The rail company, CSX, was using the latest technology available—safer cars than the ones that exploded in Quebec and Casselton.

So who’s to blame? I’d say the blame has to go to the North Dakota Governor. The Governor could require that the oil that goes in the cars is safe before it goes in. We’ve been asking for him to require oil companies to stabilize highly volatile Bakken crude before it goes into tank cars since the explosions in Quebec and Casselton. To no avail.

To quote the Dakota Resource Council (DRC), which has taken the lead on the demand for stabilization of Bakken crude before it goes into the tank cars (which is possible with current technology): “They (North Dakota regulators) could make sure oil is safe before it’s put on trains, but they’ve refused to do that. They have put protecting oil companies as their highest priority. They do not care about the consequences . . . It is irresponsible to keep approving permits to drill wells if there isn’t a safe way to get the oil to market. North Dakota’s current officials should slow down giving drilling permits. Governor Dalrymple’s Administration is putting people’s lives and property at risk here and across the continent.”

Amen.

I had lunch recently with one of North Dakota’s pre-eminent environmental lawyers. He said it is a matter of when, not if, someone here gets their ass sued off big time. Let’s hope nobody dies before that happens.

Here’s a video of Monday’s crash and fire.

And then let’s remind Jack Dalrymple of this, from Dickinson Press reporter Andrew Brown’s story over the weekend:

“The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas has allowed saltwater disposal wells to continue injecting fluid underground even as mechanical integrity tests—meant to detect weaknesses in the well’s construction—have indicated leaks in parts of the wells multiple layers of casing. A review of 449 well files and more than 2090 mechanical integrity tests reports show how state officials conditionally approve disposal wells even after they don’t meet widely accepted pressure testing standards.”

Further, Brown’s story says “State officials said the EPA guidance documents related to integrity testing don’t hold the same standing as the administrative rules, and that the agency has the authority to choose which EPA guidelines to follow. ‘There is a big difference between guidance and having your own (underground injection control) program,’ said Alison Ritter, the public information specialist for the Division of Oil and Gas.”

“But environmental lawyers who reviewed the guidance documents said the state’s actions were legally questionable and could open the agency up to citizen lawsuits or a review by the EPA if enough people petitioned federal officials.”

“‘The EPA doesn’t put these guidance documents out there to be ignored,’ said Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School and former counsel for the EPA from 1984 to 1987.” You can read Brown’s whole story here.

There’s another case of an expert saying the state is going to get its ass sued off one of these days.

And then there’s this–an exchange between Jack Dalrymple’s top oil “regulator,” Lynn Helms, and Prairie Public Radio’s Emily Guerin, in a story she reported just this morning. The first quote is from Helms testifying before a Legislative committee, and then Guerin challenged the truth of his statements:

LYNN HELMS: Yes, the number of spills is up. But look at it in comparison to the number of wells. The rate of spills is way, way down.

EMILY GUERIN: In fact, the rate of spills was way, way up. That’s according to the state’s own data. It’s more than twice as high as it was in 2006, at the start of the Bakken boom. I asked Helms why he didn’t say that.

HELMS: I never, in a conversation with people, farmers, the general public, get into a whole bunch of statistical analysis business….the detailed statistics are lost on them or just simply don’t work in making a presentation.

Does that qualify as one of the most arrogant statements ever made by a public official? I’d say. Here’s a link to the whole story.

Meanwhile, we wait for Spring to find out if the oil spilled from the pipeline west of Glendive, now trapped under the ice, shows up in sinks in Williston. And if water in Williston, and downstream in New Town and Garrison and even in Bismarck, tastes a bit salty from the millions of gallons of brine which flowed into the creeks which feed the Missouri River. And how many thousands of acres of prairie lie dead from the effects of the brine spill from a pipeline that was never inspected by state officials.

There have been so many stories this winter about lax regulation it makes your head swim. Fines for environmental violations being reduced to less than 20 per cent of what state laws provide for—the state’s “second chance” policy. Thousands of miles of pipelines being installed without inspection by any state official. State officials seeking to eliminate the state’s stringent requirements on disposal of radioactive filter socks. And on and on. Is it any wonder people like me, just an ordinary concerned citizen, question the activities of state officials, and criticize the Governor and his appointed officials? I don’t like being a constant critic, but what choice do ordinary citizens have? Our government has abandoned us so that we can have an oil boom,  which they can take credit for.

And those are all things which happened when oil was a hundred bucks a barrel. Imagine what’s ahead, with oil only bringing half that, and our boom in danger. When oil companies really have to cut corners. And regulators have to turn away even farther and faster to overlook continued violations. To keep that boom going. Imagine.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

NBC Buys Comedy Central In A ‘Big F**king Deal’

The Prairie Blog has learned that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) has bought the Comedy Central television network for an undisclosed sum that is said to be about half of what former NBC News anchor Brian Williams earns in a year.

“We had a bunch of cash lying around, and decided this would be a good use for it,” a network executive said today.

In an effort to boost their NBC Nightly News show in the under-70 demographic, the network announced that Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart will replace the recently-fired Williams as anchor in their regular 6:30 p.m. (ET) news show.

“We know that most of our regular Nightly News viewers have never stayed up late enough to watch Stewart, so he’ll take some getting used to,” the network executive said. “But we also know that most of Stewart’s regular viewers are just toking up for the evening when Nightly News comes on, and we think they will enjoy watching Stewart when they are not as wasted as they normally are when he comes on the air at 11:30 (ET).”

The network also announced that, in an effort to boost the number of black viewers watching the Nightly News, they will replace Williams’ regular black substitute host Lester Holt with Comedy Central’s new black comedy show host Larry Wilmore, who recently replaced Stephen Colbert in the time slot following Stewart.

“A lot of our black viewers found Holt to be a little too, well, ‘brown’” the NBC executive said. “Wilmore’s presence will assure them that the network is indeed committed to a ‘black’ audience.”

When asked to comment on the story, Stewart said “Wow, this is a big f**king deal! You can be sure I won’t be reading the same s**t that Brian Williams was reading every night.”

NBC also announced that instead of being a truly “live” broadcast, the network will switch to a ten-second delay for the show, allowing network “editors” to take advantage of new broadcast software being developed especially for Stewart’s show which will offer nearly-instantaneous substitution of the words “flip” and “snap” for two of Stewart’s favorite on-air words, which FCC regulations forbid on broadcast television. “The software is so good, it will be seamless,” the NBC executive said. “We thought this software program was a much better solution to curbing Stewart’s use of four letter words than trying to reprogram him.”

Williams, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment. A voicemail message on his cellphone said he was tied up having lunch with Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and the Dalai Lama.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment