Fracking, Chemical Spills, and Environmental Concerns

Farmer Dan Kalil

Dan Kalil, a third generation farmer with oil wells on his land / Photo by Brad DeCecco

This week and next, I’m putting on my investigative journalist hat and talking to locals about the environmental effects and health concerns caused by the oil boom.

Fracking is a controversial topic, and I want to make it clear that I’m not taking an official position on it, and nor will the book. I will take a critical look at the process, however, and report both sides to the issue. The side I’m currently looking at is the environmental effects, but I’ll get into more details about the positives of fracking at a later date (it could be less bad than other mining or drilling processes, for example, and many people I’ve talked to are adamant about doing everything they can to limit the environmental damage).

Nevertheless, environmental damage is happening. One big concern is the illegal dumping and accidental spills of the chemical-infused saltwater used in the fracking process. There were over 1,000 documented spills in 2011 alone, and the liquid completely sterilizes the land, killing everything it touches. In 2006, when the oil boom was in its infancy, a pipeline leak caused one million gallons of it to spill into a creek in Alexander, ND, killing hundreds of fish, turtles and plants. Despite cleanup efforts, ranchers in the area are still finding tainted areas. I’ll be going to look at some more spill sites on Monday.

I’ll also be spending a few nights on a farm next week to understand the deep connection many local North Dakotans have to the land. Farmer Donny Nelson, who has spent nearly every day of his life on his farm, and can tell if rain is coming by the smell of the air, finds it difficult to watch thousands of people descend on his home land, knowing they’ll probably leave just as quickly if the price of oil drops. “I think it’s sad what’s happening,” he says. “My grandparents homesteaded here and we’ve seen how hard it was for them. The winters are brutal. They suffered so we could have it better, and this land is what did it for them. In the end we don’t own the land, it owns us.”

CORRECTION 1/25/14: A previous version of this post referred to Donny Nelson as Donny Wilson. His name has been corrected.

Donny Nelson, a third-generation North Dakota farmer / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on

Donny Nelson, another third-generation North Dakota farmer. Some 25 wells surrounded his farmhouse, and he’s documented many saltwater spills on his land / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on

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2 thoughts on “Fracking, Chemical Spills, and Environmental Concerns

  1. This a very interesting article. Since I don’t know that much about fracking, I am unsure where to take a stance on the fracking issue. I know it’s controversial and I know that am not in favor of anything that is harmful to the environment, but other mining methods may be worse, as you mentioned.
    I look forward to your critical analysis of the process of fracking in North Dakota in future articles and the your book. I find your articles to be very informative. Thank you, Erin

  2. Most of us realize that you set out to do a sociological study I and part of that would be the local workers and farmers attitude towards the environmental, health, economic, etc. effects of the fracking. That would then by logical extension have to go into the validity of some of these views from point of fact. Even if the “facts” you get are just local hands-on opinion, it’s a lot more than any of us can get so far away from the ‘scene of the crime’ so-to-speak. Good one! Been waiting for this part!

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