Spoiled Soil: How Salt Water Spills are Hitting a North Dakota Farmer Hard

Both the farming and oil industry mean so much to North Dakota.

A farmer in northern North Dakota near the Canadian Border is worried that they can’t work together.

There are many areas of land that face salt water damage in North Dakota.

Imagine this: you own a hotel and someone comes in tears down the wall…then leaves without fixing them.

That’s how one landowner tells KVRR he has been feeling for nearly 20 years.

Seven point three…twelve point four six…

The measuring tool stops at 20…but that doesn’t mean the amount does.

“This land has been in my family for over 60 years,” said farmer and landowner Daryl Peterson. “We’ll walk along here and maybe do a little testing to see. Now this will vary, but it’s at 12.46.”

Peterson measures salinity in the soil of his property in Bottineau County.

“It’s no wonder why nothing grows,” he said.

A problem, when you make a living farming.

“Acceptable levels are two. This is at least three and a half times what’s acceptable,” he added.

“We don’t have plants in North Dakota that can tolerate that level of salinity,” said Dr.Tom DeSutter, who is a Soil Science Program Leader at NDSU.

The soil is allegedly damaged from salt water spills by the oil production companies on the property.

Spills can happen by transporting equipment or by damaged pipes.

“In my part of the country here where the wells are marginal, the equipment is old,” said Peterson. “A lot of spills are happening. No maintenance seems to be done and it’s devastating to the land. Behind me is an oil site that is on my property. There has been at least ten spills in the last five years in this area on my property, many of them not even reported.”

The Department of Mineral Resources says they conduct monthly inspections at well sites.

If something is out of regulation, oil companies receive a verbal warning.

They have 30 days to fix it.

The agency says nearly 60 percent of the issues get resolved in that time.

If the oil companies still have not resolved the issue, they receive a written complaint and then they have 180 days to resolve it.

The remaining 40% of violations takes longer than 180 days.

But the state says they do get resolved.

“Where you see the kosher weeds right there is where the soil was replaced in 2012,” pointed out Peterson. “All of this was replaced to three feet deep and the salt came back up. And as you can see right here, nothing grows. But where it’s not quite as contaminated and the salt hasn’t all come back up yet, it will grow a kosher weed which is no good to anybody. My wife and I wrote a letter to the North Dakota Industrial Commission in 1997, asking them to please help us. There are spills on our property. Hold the company accountable and get our land cleaned up. They filed the letter, so it’s on file.”

Peterson said he never received a reply.

“Finally in 2010, they did a mineral water soil test and recognized there was some damage here. They did not realize the extent of this,” he added.

The North Dakota Department of Health requires the oil companies and reclamation firms to notify the landowners when they’re testing on their property.

“Who’s out here to help me? They are supposed to get me the test results or whatever they are supposed to notify us. They have not done any of the above,” Peterson said.

In 2011, Peterson and members of his family were brought in front of a judge by the oil company for trespassing.

“Who’s protecting my property rights? Can I go to the Sheriff and say ‘whoop someone is trespassing on my property and have them pay attention’? But if an oil company…someone goes on their property, right away we’re having citations issued,” Peterson said.

He said he and his family had witnessed spills at the well site on their land and were reporting violations.

“The judge, in his ruling in a summary, said that in fact, that it was our moral obligation to report these spills and completely rules on our behalf,” declared Peterson. “It’s kind of a David and Goliath effort here in North Dakota.”

When I talked to the state Department of Mineral Resources, they said they are well aware of Peterson’s situation and they are doing their best.

It just takes time.

“I am not a tree hugger, I have demonstrated that I am for responsible oil development but we need to do a way better job,” Peterson said.

The state agrees there are lingering discrepancies on the Peterson’s land.

The North Dakota Department of Health says they are actively working with the parties to find a solution.

Some soils are just harder than others.

They say they wish they could fix it as fast as the Petersons want.

“I am going to keep on as long as I can. I think I have the moral high ground, and I have a good cause,” Peterson said.

He said he’s looking for only one outcome; for the oil company to take responsibility for their actions.

“Well, to satisfy me, I feel the land they contaminated should be cleaned up. Clean up your mess.”

He said he is only looking out for his land and the best interest of the state’s economy.

“We should not have to sacrifice our Ag industry…our agricultural economy for a one time harvest of oil,” he finished.

The North Dakota Department of Health says the Petersons are currently not letting them on their land, but Peterson disputes that.

Both parties are in contact and they hope to find a solution.

It’s just taking much longer than anyone was hoping.

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