Joletta Bird Bear and Fort Berthold POWER Still Have a Long Way to Go to Get Clean Air on the Reservation.
Flares danced all the way out to the horizon in every direction among the rolling hills of North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation. The six closest flares were clumped only a few hundred feet away, sounding like rockets trying to take flight, but never quite lifting off. Wind shifts did nothing to relieve the constant, heavy scent of petroleum. Distressing, considering that the really dangerous chemicals didn’t have odors. “The volatile organic compounds and chemical gases flowing in the air are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene,” Mandaree resident Joletta Bird Bear said. “These are hazardous gases to the human body. Carcinogenic. Not all gases burn in flaring.”
Bird Bear, Chair of Fort Berthold Protectors of Water & Earth Rights (POWER), has been fighting the epidemic of flaring and venting (releasing unburned gas directly into the air) of methane for over a decade. “It’s worrisome when you can actually smell the industry, and it’s located right in your backyard,” Bird Bear said. “Recently, I was at Elbowoods Clinic for a health check-up, and I asked one of the nurses, ‘Do you see a lot of people coming in here for respiratory issues?’ and the nurse responded quickly with, ‘Oh, yes. We’ve got people coming in here who’ve never had any instances of asthma and are now asthmatic. We’ve got young people coming in here for respiratory issues.’”
“Oh, yes. We’ve got people coming in here who’ve never had any instances of asthma, and are now asthmatic. We’ve got young people coming in here for respiratory issues.”
Capturing the gasses is both possible and inexpensive with current technology. States like Colorado capture 98% of natural gas from wells. Under-regulation and under-enforcement have allowed oil companies to flare or vent 19% of the natural gas produced in North Dakota, polluting the air and wasting a valuable natural resource. On the Fort Berthold Reservation, 37% of natural gas is flared or vented. That’s millions of dollars in royalties owed to taxpayers up in smoke.
Flaring isn’t just contained to the wide-open rural areas on the reservation. Flares burn within the communities as well. “In Mandaree, there are flares located in close, close proximity to schools, houses, everything,” Bird Bear said.
Since the drilling is happening on the Reservation’s fee and trust lands, planning and mitigation falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Typically a proposal to drill several thousand wells would require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to assess the cumulative impact of the development, instead, the BIA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). No EIS was conducted to identify the impacts on the lives of people living there. “Had the EIS actually happened, we would have had to look at every potential impact to the land, to the air, to the water, to the economy, to the culture, and to the social structure on Fort Berthold,” she said. “It would have added an element of planning into the whole process. But because there was no EIS, the doors were flung right open, and we had rapid industrialization of an area containing undisturbed natural resources, habitat, and wildlife that’s been here for eons, clean air, clean water, and people, of course, who’ve had an attachment to this land for eons.”
“It would have added an element of planning into the whole process. But because there was no EIS, the doors were flung right open, and we had rapid industrialization of an area containing undisturbed natural resources, habitat and wildlife that’s been here for eons, clean air, clean water, and people, of course, who’ve had an attachment to this land for eons.”
The changes to the area came quickly. Since BIA’s Finding of No Significant Impact, more than 500 wells have been drilled and the State of North Dakota estimates 4,395 more will be drilled. It’s been estimated that truck traffic bringing fracking materials in and hauling oil out of the reservation has caused over $100 million in damage to roads. Capturing the gas and selling it would lead to royalties that might offset some of those costs. It would also limit people’s exposure to toxic pollutants known to cause respiratory illnesses and cancer.
The price of oil is rising. More wells are being drilled as the Bakken begins booming again. With those wells, more methane will be flared and vented or leaked from poorly monitored or neglected pipelines. Fort Berthold POWER’s organizing efforts mean that more people are becoming informed of the dangers that oil development poses. “People are talking more about the water, the land, the air, the noise, the traffic, and all health impacts that are coming,” Bird Bear said. “They aren’t quantified yet, but we know they’re coming. Other communities in Colorado, in Texas, Pennsylvania…those communities have already gone through what we’re entering into. It’s not as if we don’t know what’s down the road.”