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Sarah Christianson speaking Wednesday in Fargo, ND about her new project, "When the landscape is Quiet again”

ND oil boom stands at a crossroads and Sarah Christianson is there with camera in hand

Zachary Toliver | Shale Plays Media

Internationally recognized photographer Sarah Christianson is a fourth generation North Dakotan. She grew up on a family farm near Cummings where her great, great grandparents homesteaded land during western expansion in 1884. Her bloodline could not be more North Dakotan than that. So it’s no wonder that much of her professional career has revolved around documenting the beauty and changes of the Midwest.

old midland

Farm Sarah grew up on near Cummings, ND. Photo taken from Sarah’s presentation Wednesday June 25th.

Sarah was in Fargo Wednesday evening at an event hosted by North Dakotans for Clean Water Wildlife and Parks. She gave an insightful lecture and first-hand viewing through photography of numerous alterations to the landscape caused by the three North Dakota oil booms. Her newest project, titled “When the landscape is Quiet again”, refers to a speech made by former North Dakota Governor Art Link in 1973 during North Dakota’s second oil boom in which he stated, “When we are through with that and the landscape is quiet again…let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, our grandparents did their job well. The land is as good and, in some cases, better than before.”

Christianson was inspired to start the project in 2012, when media outlets were enthralled by stories of economic benefits.  Jobs, revenue, and unprecedented opportunity were the talk of the state. But as Sarah’s photos illustrate, such financial victories can come with unsightly wounds. “I felt that there was this gap that needed to be filled in the visual documentation.” Sarah said in her presentation.

The point of Sarah’s venture was not an attack or a call to halt all oil production. Sarah’s family too has used their mineral rights out west for drilling. Yet she raises an important point. What is being done to heal the scars of prosperity? Sarah acknowledged that, “If you do speak up you run the risk of being labeled an activist, a tree hugging hippie, an environmentalist, a liberal.” These labels, once attached, hold the power to alienate concerned citizens from others in their community, regardless of common interest.

However, we cannot ignore the exponential growth of North Dakota’s human development. Doing so would be a crippling threat to a historical way of life. Hunters, hikers, fishers, bird enthusiasts, small town folk etc. who all thrive off the North Dakota terrain have a responsibility to make sure this boom goes smoothly without lasting damage. Currently, North Dakota is ranked 42nd for conservation spending in the nation. Behind energy production and farming, hunting and other outdoor recreational activities are the most important money maker for North Dakota yet roughly 50 percent of North Dakota’s wetlands have disappeared and even more so of our native grasslands.

Some images, such as this one taken near Antler, North Dakota, show the unfortunate reality that land used for farming is at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and other harmful effects of energy production. As one can see, corn crops exist right in the middle of pump jacks and a caution sign warning of harmful chemicals.  However, Sarah showed photos and took the time to praise oil companies who do “intermediate land reclamation of well sites.” Soil is reintroduced over previous operation sites. This helps farmers’ probability of growing crops in the following years.


Related: State clamps down on oilfield waste: Rules specify leak-proof containers for filter socks

Although some companies are doing their best to make a subtle impact on the land including multiple well from the same pads to reduce land use as depicted in one of Christianson’s photo, unfortunate accidents happen time and time again. Some of these accidents leave the soil neutered; unable to grow healthy crops or support life for years to come. Many wells exist right in the middle of native habitats such as land that is prime for Mule Deer. Human development and expanding oil productivity have taken their toll on deer populations in the state, evidenced by the lowest number of hunting tags sold since the 1980’s.

“There are around 10,000 active wells in North Dakota with the potential to add 40,000 new ones” Sarah claimed. Aside from the massive use of land these wells will need, these endeavors will all come with new waste pits and waste wells. “It takes around 2 million gallons of water to frack each single well” Christianson said as she flipped through photos of contaminated ponds that dot parts of the western landscape near well sites.


Example of salt water damaged farmland near Antler, ND. Photo taken at Sarah Christianson’s presentation Wednesday June 25th

These bodies of water, which are commonly laced with harmful elements like arsenic and lead, are reinforced and buried to prevent Ground leakage but she exclaimed, “It’s not if but when” will these storage ponds fail. “It may not be in our life time or our children’s”. Her words carried the hard truth that this oil boom for better and for worse, will have an impression for generations to come. The Western Organization of Resource councils in 2012 stated that once water is contaminated with chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, the water is lost from the hydrological cycle.

Some of Christianson’s photos were done at the request of those effected by the boom. For instance, in May of last year, Brenda and Richard Jorgenson asked Sarah to come out and document the Tioga Lateral Alliance Pipeline that cuts through their pasture land. The Jorgensons had a portion of their land taken from them through eminent domain laws to build the pipeline. Many do not realize that eminent domain laws and similar actions of “forced pooling” are an actual, active threats to private land owners.

Related: Tioga pipeline spill cleanup estimated to top $11 million

From two oil booms, North Dakota has 267 abandoned wells. Some companies have even declared bankruptcy to alleviate themselves of responsibility to reclamation or clean-up. Since 2000, hundreds of reported spilling incidents involving oil or salt water have happened. Some are small and some are unfortunately big. In 2013 alone, North Dakota had 1,607 spills. “One of the causes of these spills is aging infrastructure, stuff that was laid out in the 70’s and 80’s.” Sarah said, describing contaminated farm land from salt water spills.

The new Bakken boom is unmatched in its glorious productivity. It has given the state an opportunity to exist comfortably for decades. But the speed at which everything is happening has already begun to inflict noticeable and perhaps

example of an oil waste pit near Cartwright. Photo taken at Sarah Christianson’s presentation Wednesday June 25th

example of an oil waste pit near Cartwright. Photo taken at Sarah Christianson’s presentation Wednesday June 25th

permanent damage to the land we all cherish. So we sit at a crossroads, one that must be navigated with responsibility and wisdom in order to safeguard the land once it’s quiet again.

You can see this ongoing project and other works of Sarah’s professional photography over at her website, www.sarahchristianson.com and can catch her work displayed in the spring of 2015 at the Plains Art Museum as a part of the show, “The Bakken Boom:  Artists Respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush.”


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