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The Dark Side to North Dakota's Oil Boom

Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.

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But Reuber worries that the industry and regulators are repeating past mistakes. Not long before he left the Fish and Wildlife Service, he found a set of old slides showing waste pits and spills from decades ago.

"They looked almost exactly like photos I had taken," he said. "There's a spill into a creek bottom in the Badlands and it was sitting there with no one cleaning it up and containing it. And yeah, I got a photo like that, too."

Keller has grown so dispirited by the changes brought by the boom that he is considering retiring after 30 years with the Army Corps and moving away from Williston. He runs a side business in scrap metal that would supplement his pension.

Still, determined to protect the area, he keeps alerting regulators whenever he spots evidence that oil companies have dumped or spilled waste.

Last July, when he saw signs of a spill near his home, Keller notified the Health Department and sent pictures showing  a trail of dead grass to an acquaintance at the EPA regional office in Denver. The brown swath led from a well site into a creek.

If the spills continued,  he warned the EPA in an email, they could "kill off the entire watershed."

EPA officials said they spoke with Keller, but did not follow up on the incident beyond that. The state never responded, Keller said. The site remained untested and was never cleaned up.

"There was no restoration work whatsoever," Keller said.

 

Nicholas Kusnetz has written for The Nation, Miller-McCune, The New York Times and other publications. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 
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