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Published July 31, 2011, 12:04 AM

Oil Field Village Hopes to Preserve Its Beauty

The people of White Earth wonder, will anyone help them save a small, beautiful piece of North Dakota?

By: Lauren Donovan, Bismarck Tribune

WHITE EARTH, N.D. (AP) — The people of White Earth wonder, will anyone help them save a small, beautiful piece of North Dakota?

They are only a few and they fear they have no influence, much less the political clout to prevent their own valley from becoming an oil field waste dump.

Many of them work in the oil field or profit from it somehow, and they have a harder question of conscience to settle: If they take the money, what must they give in return?

CCS Midstream Inc., a Canada-based corporation, wants to build an industrial site on the top edge of the White Earth Valley.

The company would truck in the brackish water that comes up with oil and, in a treating plant, separate that into recoverable oil, salt water for injection in a deep well and sludge for disposal in a solid waste landfill.

There is only one other such treatment plant in North Dakota. It's near Trenton, south of Williston, and was acquired by CCS.

The company needs several permits issued by state agencies — the State Health Department and the Industrial Commission. Before anything can be built at White Earth, the company will need zoning for the 320-acre site that's now cropland owned by Brian and Nancy Rice.

That puts the first line of authority in the hands of the Mountrail Planning and Zoning board, made up of seven local citizens who told CCS last month they needed a lot more information about the project before they can take action.

The company has not sent a revised zoning application for the board's upcoming meeting, said Don Longmuir, the county's zoning administrator.

About 35 people gathered in a small community hall in White Earth on July 11 to plan how to stop the project.

Homemade cookies were set out on the counter and more metal chairs were unfolded as locals from up and down the valley came into the hall. For White Earth, an incorporated village long past its heyday, this was quite a crowd.

Just after 7 p.m. in the full light of a summer evening, the meeting opened with no set agenda other than a strong need to express themselves.

What soon became clear is that they believe they will have to be their own advocates if they hope to draw the line of oil development at the doorstep of their valley.

"People think this is a wasteland out here and there's not enough people to really worry about. But if we all show up and bring people with us, they'll pay attention," said Steve Davis, who helps his brother, Scott, at a purebred Angus ranch between the town and Highway 2. "What can we do to stop it, except fill the room with people? The state's going to rubber-stamp it."

After some back and forth and passionately expressed views, they all added their names to a letter from the three Myrtle Township directors to the county planning board opposing the project.

The township long ago relinquished its zoning authority to the county, but township director Scott Leidle said he believes the zoning board will defer to the township's wishes.

Leidle said besides signing the letter, people need to pick up the phone and call the planning board members and the county commissioners, who can accept or overturn any planning recommendation.

"Their phones should never stop ringing," Leidle said.

White Earth Mayor Steve Feiring said he could start a petition from the city, too.

"I don't think we want it," he said. "It's going to be a mess and we don't need anymore."

Mountrail County Commissioner Greg Boschee said he's open to hearing objections from White Earth residents, but he'd need to hear specific reasons why the project would be unsuitable or harmful before voting against it.

CCS, which has an American office in Texas, deferred questions about the proposed facility to Walter James, outside legal counsel.

James said the company's plans are preliminary and that it has not yet purchased the property from the Rices. Jerome Rice, who lives about 10 miles up the valley, said he sold the property to his son earlier this year. He said he wouldn't comment on the project but said he's lived in the oil field for decades and remembers when oil field waste was unregulated and buried in pits.

"This takes care of some of that. I'm not saying it's perfect," Jerome Rice said.

James said the White Earth treatment plant would process 35,000 barrels weekly of salt water from oil wells. While the process does result in some marketable crude oil and sludge for the solid waste landfill, James said it's more about treating and the proper disposal of salt water.

"People used to just dump it on the side of the road, not very environmentally sensitive," he said.

No one from CCS was at the meeting in White Earth, where people were mostly concerned about salt water spills if a truck overturned and about chemical odor and underground leaching from the solid waste landfill.

"Eventually things happen, they always do," said Scott Davis, whose land is downhill from the proposed site. "They've never proved to us that they can contain this."

Rose Person, of White Earth, said any conditions, if the site is approved, should require the company to disclose whatever chemicals are buried in the solid waste landfill.

"We need to know, otherwise how are we going to prove that something is in there?" she said.

James said the White Earth location was picked after an extensive search for locations because it's in a high-activity corridor very near Highway 2 and has a favorable soil profile.

In addition, he said, "There are no waterways, lakes, rivers or streams that would be impacted."

Another favorable factor is that the site is close to oil wells and a salt water injection well, he said.

James said CCS hopes to build the treating plant and the solid waste disposal site this year, but said it's not likely the company will make that schedule.

"I will say that CCS will meet with the community. It will work with them to deal with their concerns," James said.

In White Earth — beyond questions about how the landfill would be built to prevent the waste from bubbling up, or traveling into aquifer-fed springs — the main concern is how to protect the valley from such development in the first place.

It's not as if it's isolated from the oil boom now.

Geographically, the White Earth River is a watershed for western Mountrail County and drains into Lake Sakakawea.

The deep and distinct valley is some 40 miles north to south as the crow flies, in places wide and grassy, in others narrow with heavily forested ravines, or high cliff faces with exposed strata that have a Badlands drama.

The small river winds along the valley floor except where it's dammed into a small fishing and recreational lake six miles north of the town of White Earth.

There are oil wells at the edge of the valley on both sides and a long scar runs through a part of it, where an oil pipeline easement is going through.

The pavement into White Earth is broken and battered from semi-trucks and the old schoolhouse grounds has an RV "man camp" the owner named "Boomtown" on the advertising sign.

Not far from the proposed treating and landfill site is an array of huge vats manufactured by Poseidon Concepts, of Alberta, Canada, that store fluids used to fracture oil wells.

To that extent, White Earth is no virgin in its oil field relationship.

But as Person said, oil development is one relationship, a permanent waste dump is quite another.

At the meeting, the largest family was brothers Scott and Steve Davis and Scott Davises' sons Kevin and Matt and daughter Sara and her husband Kevin Gieseke.

Kevin and Matt Davis and Kevin Gieseke all make good wages in the oil industry, working at the Hess Corp. gas processing facility west of White Earth, at Tioga.

Kevin and Sara Davis Gieseke moved from Bozeman, Mont., to White Earth in November, for the good-paying job and to raise their infant daughter in the rural place where her mother grew up.

Kevin Gieseke said he knows there's some disconnect between getting good wages from the oil and gas industry and opposing an oil waste dump less than two miles from his house.

Still, he said he can sleep at night with that contradiction.

"You've got to draw a line somewhere. Poking (oil well) holes in the prairie and ruining roads is one thing. But where are we going to live if it's all an oil field? This is a hidden little treasure here," he said. He said if White Earth Valley isn't the prettiest place in North Dakota, "it's a close second."

Kevin Davis says his operations work for Hess is a great job, but that doesn't mean he wants an oil waste dump and treating plant less than a mile from his house.

"If this was going into someone else's backyard, I'd feel sorry for them, too," he said. A new house he's building - every nail pounded by his hammer — overlooks the green valley and the gravel road that continues on past his place would be a "major highway" to the treating plant and waste landfill.

Matt Davis said he's worried he'd have to smell the treating plant chemicals and the facility will wreck his good well water, now a reliable and steady 40 gallons per minute supply.

"I guess I work in the oil field, but I'm not for it. It's too close to people. There are better places for it," he said.

Scott Davis, the men's dad and father-in-law, said he doesn't see it as a matter of conscience. He raises purebred Angus now, but worked through earlier oil booms to save money to buy his land.

"You can be opposed to it, because it's a job. Just because you work in the oil field doesn't mean you have to believe in everything the oil field does," Scott Davis said. "If you work at a brewery, that doesn't mean you have to drink beer."

But there are divergent viewpoints in White Earth.

At the meeting, LeRoy Schroeder said it's important to respect what oil development has done for the region.

"We have to put up with some of this stuff. If we don't let them do all this, we'll be on horseback again. We need that oil and gas," Schroeder said.