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Lake Sakakawea 32 foot wall

by Friends of Lake Sakakawea

Van Hook Resort sandwiched between oil and water
32-foot wall acts as "sound barrier" between 11 wells and Lake Sak
Bismarck Tribune

Residents of a popular recreation and camping area on Lake Sakakawea are sandwiched this summer between two oil sites, with an active drilling rig on one end and a large sound barrier wall protecting a new site on the other.

But the manager of Van Hook Park near New Town in northwest North Dakota said oil development around the park is “better than expected” as developer Slawson Exploration works to minimize impacts.

“Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, but we’re really pleasantly surprised with the way that Slawson has been handling this,” said manager Dawn Ritts.

Others say, while they appreciate the company’s efforts to be a good neighbor, they don’t like how close the oil wells are to campsites, cabins and one of the busiest boat ramps on Lake Sakakawea.

Terry Fleck, president of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea group that fought to move oil development further away, said he’d like the regulators who approved drilling there to visit and see the impacts.

“Come sit on someone’s deck and listen to the rig. There’s no tranquility, there’s no quietness. The whir of a drilling rig goes all night long. You can smell the fumes as well,” said Fleck, a resident of one of 210 leased lots in the park.

This summer, Slawson is drilling two oil wells to the east of the recreation area, which visitors drive by as they enter the park.

After the company is finished drilling there, anticipated in the coming weeks, the rig will move to the opposite end of the park and remain for about a year as crews drill an additional 10 wells to access oil under Lake Sakakawea, said Eric Sundberg, environmental and regulatory manager.

The larger well site, known as the Torpedo pad, is about 800 feet from Lake Sakakawea and adjacent to a boat launch area, which Ritts said attracts as many as 150 to 200 boats on a busy weekend.

Slawson recently installed a 32-foot sound barrier wall around this site, the first time such a wall has been used in North Dakota, to muffle the noise from drilling and completion work, Sundberg said. The wall will be removed after the wells are completed.

Ritts joked she wants to have a naming contest for the wall, suggesting “the Great Wall of Van Hook” as one possibility.

“At first when it went up, I thought ‘Oh my lord, it’s hideous,’” she said.

But now that it’s installed, Ritts said she likes that it shields the work site and will cut down on noise for people who live on that side of the park.

Later this summer, it’s expected that hydraulic fracturing crews will work east of the park at the same time that drilling crews work on the Torpedo pad to the west, Sundberg said. Each site is permitted for one additional well, but Slawson is waiting on a federal lease reinstatement before those two can be drilled, he said.

There may be additional wells at a third location between the two sites currently being developed. The state has approved a permit for a third location, but the company is waiting for a federal lease at that site, Sundberg said.

Slawson has taken several steps to reduce impacts to the park, including hiring gate guards to prevent trucks from entering the park. The company also uses an electric rig to reduce noise. Oil tanks, a natural gas flare and other production equipment for the Torpedo pad will be located about a mile north from the well site.

Natural gas flaring from the well sites will be minimal, Sundberg said, because gas pipelines will be installed before wells are drilled.

In addition, Slawson donated $50,000 to the Mountrail County Park Board so the park can tap into a rural water pipeline and provide potable water to residents and visitors from a kiosk near the boat ramp.

Wells in the area pump water the color of iced tea, and many residents have water delivered by a vendor. Construction on the project started last week and should be complete by the end of August, Ritts said.

“We were just beyond excited and grateful for that,” she said.

Kay Nordloef, of Stanley, is one of many who camp every summer at Van Hook Park, which has about 150 campsites in addition to the leased lots.

“It’s 30 minutes from home but it’s like a world apart. It’s such a relaxing atmosphere,” Nordloef said.

This year, Nordloef’s RV is parked near the drilling rig and the road workers use to access the site. She said it hasn’t bothered her and she continues to sleep with her window open.

Her brother-in-law, Brad Reese, who camps a few sites away, also had no complaints.

“I thought it was going to be a lot worse,” Reese said.

Robert Bruning, a North Dakota native who was visiting from Wisconsin last week, didn’t like seeing the well sites so close to the lake.

“I hope they do what’s right and there are no spills,” said Bruning, as he cleaned walleye he caught in Lake Sakakawea.

Slawson has a detailed spill response plan on file with regulators, including participating with the Sakakawea Area Spill Response coalition that has equipment staged around the lake.

The plan includes notifying Parshall in the event of a spill. The city has the closest water intake to the oil development.

But members of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea group continue to have questions about the risk of a well failure that close to the lake and how the company would handle an emergency if the area were full of boaters.

“If there were a blowout with a west wind, what’s the response?” Fleck said.

Slawson had a blowout in 2012 from a well near Van Hook that sprayed oil and brine, reaching the ice on Lake Sakakawea. Sundberg said that incident was caused by human error and the likelihood of a blowout is “extremely minimal.” If an emergency occurs, the company would rely on local first responders to notify residents and the public, he said.

Don Longmuir, interim emergency manager for Mountrail County, said the county would use its reverse 911 system, a notification system that can alert cell phone users in the area and TV and radio to alert people to an emergency.

Other residents said the risk of Slawson having a blowout is no greater than any other company that’s drilling around Lake Sakakawea.

Fleck said he thinks North Dakotans are becoming desensitized to all of the oil development.

“We don’t hear it anymore. It's kind of like living in a city with lots of sirens,” Fleck said. “I feel like we’re losing little pieces of our society and we’re OK with it. Because it’s all in the name of economic development.”