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The Sellout of Van Hook Park

by Jim Fuglie, former state tourism director


The following article appeared in the July/August 2017 Edition of Dakota Country Magazine


WARNING: In this article I’m going to rip some North Dakota politicians a new one. This isn’t personal, and it isn’t partisan. They’ve got it coming because of malfeasance in office. I’m not going to pull any punches. They deserve it.
But first a little background.

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

The new Van Hook recreational community is managed by the Mountrail County Park Commission and sits on land owned by the Corps of Engineers, which owns the lake’s shoreline. At times, the boat ramp next to the campground and cabin sites is the busiest boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea.

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

This spring, an oil company named Slawson Exploration moved in beside the resort, and with its huge machinery began clearing a 25-acre site at the top of the boat ramp, which will be home to an 11-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community. By the time you read this drilling will likely be underway.

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

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

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

Fleck says, and Mountrail County officials agree, it’s not a matter of “if” there will be an incident at the well pad. It’s “when.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slawson did agree to a meeting with the Friends of Lake Sakakawea last summer. The group’s president, Terry Fleck, said the company agreed to move the well pad back away from the lake, and that seemed reasonable, so they decided not to protest.

Turns out that was a mistake. Slawson lied. Locals learned that only when the stakes for the pad went in this spring -- less than a thousand feet from the boat ramp and just a few hundred yards from the trailers and lake homes in the resort.
Fleck, Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget, and a Mountrail County Commissioner all told me last spring that they had done everything legally possible to move the project away from the lake. But their hands were tied by the Industrial Commission.

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

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

Through all the public furor and meetings with the Friends organization last year, the oil company never mentioned they were going to drill on both sides of the town.
It’s really hard to imagine what the Industrial Commission was thinking when they allowed the company to bookend the little resort community with oil wells. There’ll be at least 14 wells, possibly 17, and maybe a saltwater injection well, within shouting distance of the resort’s residents. The cacophony from the dirt work, then the drilling, with thousands of trucks hauling fracking water (I’ve read it takes a thousand truckloads of water to frack a well), and then trucks to service the wells, is almost beyond comprehension -- not to mention the disaster if (when?) another blowout occurs.

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

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

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

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