BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) —
The Williston Herald, Williston, Nov. 29, 2014
Regulators need to stand up to oil
A report by The New York Times, released a week ago today, gave us a damaging and eyebrow-raising look at how the state regulates the oil industry in western North Dakota.
Indeed, the report pointed out the 900-pound gorilla in North Dakota Industrial Commission meetings, and exposed what reads like a “good ole’ boys” relationship between the regulating body and the industry.
Millions of dollars in fines have been issued to these companies, and most reduced to a slap on the wrist — about 10 percent of all fines collected — during a time when spills were doubling in the Bakken.
For us in the heart of the Bakken, this was happening literally in some of our backyards, and was apparently fixed with an apology, a false promise, and a few cents in the campaign donation bucket.
Days after The Times ripped the cover off the state’s broken regulatory system — and drew harsh rebuke from Gov. Jack Dalrymple — North Dakota signed off on a fine reduction for a company that illegally dumped radioactive filter socks in Noonan — nearly $780,000 less than the original assessment — and all the while maintaining its regulation was among the strongest.
We beg to differ.
We also feel the need to question: Why are our elected officials not holding these oil companies responsible for their mistakes, neglect and poor judgment?
In the case of Zenith Producted Water, the company which allegedly dumped the socks, a district attorney appointed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said there wouldn’t be enough evidence to fully prosecute the company for the $800,000 fine. Instead, Zenith was fined $20,000 for cost of cleanup and told to behave.
A lesson hard learned, we’re sure.
Zenith claimed innocence, saying a contractor hired by the company did the deed, unbeknownst to them. While we believe this could be the case, we also believe Zenith should be held responsible for its poor decision in hiring what turned out to be an untrustworthy contractor to dispose of toxic waste.
If a state contractor was acting illegally, the state would catch the heat, and ultimately end up shouldering a brunt of the burden. It would happen in almost every other walk of business.
Zenith hired a party to do its job, and didn’t have the care to create oversight for its vendor.
As for the fine, we feel the attorney general and district attorney should have stood up for North Dakota, prosecuted the entire case and allowed a judge or jury to decide if Zenith was at fault, and what it should pay.
In the wake of The Times’ report, the state cannot afford — financially or through reputation — to continue to appear as if it’s in the back pocket of the oil industry. It simply has to come down hard at some point and stop resting its head on past laurels when challenged.
Officials on the NDIC, who regulate the industry, were elected by the people, not the oil industry. It’s time they stand up to the oil industry, demand it takes responsibility and stop taking campaign funds from the people they must discipline.
Otherwise, it may be time for the Legislature to shake things up as it tried to do with the State Board of Higher Education: Remove elected officials from the NDIC and appoint a new round of regulators without industry ties.
Because if we can’t trust our state government to protect our lands and their fellow North Dakotans, who else are we to trust to make the industry responsible for its actions?
The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, Nov. 28, 2014
Train delays in towns must be solved
When something’s obviously wrong, it needs to be fixed.
Such is the case with BNSF Railway trains going through New Salem, Rhame and other North Dakota communities. Actually, “going through” is the wrong term to use.
New Salem Mayor Lynette Fitterer says trains are cutting the town in half, sometimes for hours. Add to that the constant dinging of crossing warnings during the night that keep people awake, and the town’s residents are getting upset.
What worries residents in the communities along the track the most is when trains split the towns, limiting access in and out. There are times when trains sit for hours. This creates other problems, like kids playing around the trains and motorists trying to go around the cross arms.
Residents also fear emergency responders won’t be able to reach their caller in a timely fashion.
Rhame wants to get the Federal Railroad Administration involved. The only crossing in Rhame is often blocked. The alternative ways out of town add many minutes to an emergency response.
Recently a 911 call came to Rhame from a man having trouble breathing. A train was blocking the crossing, so the responders took the back way and when they arrived at the residence the man had died.
There’s no way of knowing if the extra minutes made a difference, but Rhame’s residents have to be thinking about it.
BNSF’s record rail traffic in North Dakota has fueled the problem. Outbound train volume has increased nearly 200 percent since 2009 and inbound has climbed nearly 120 percent.
A train goes through New Salem, on average, every 45 minutes.
BNSF and the communities have been working on solutions, but so far all the problems haven’t been resolved.
BNSF recently extended siding track to move trains through Hebron more quickly.
The railroad’s policy is trains should be “cut” and the crossing open after 10 minutes, but BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth told reporter Lauren Donovan the 10-minute rule isn’t firm, because cutting a train and rehooking it takes substantial time.
Overpasses and underpasses could help in the towns, but they can’t afford them. And BNSF participates minimally in such projects. In fairness, the railroad has invested $400 million in North Dakota this year, including new siding to the east of New Salem at Judson and the extended siding at Hebron.
The time has come for the railroad, communities, state and the Federal Railroad Administration to get together and find solutions. If some state funding is needed, now is the time to act with the Legislature convening in January.
The rail shipments indicate the oil boom has played a large role in the increased rail traffic, so an argument can be made for funding.
When everyone is aware of a problem, they should be able to resolve it.
If you listen to the towns’ leaders, they sound reasonable, but frustrated.
“We’ve tried not to bash the railroad, but people get angry,” New Salem’s mayor, Fitterer, told Donovan.
“We’re trying to get the federal agency involved for some sort of peaceful resolution,” Rhame City Councilman Scott Luvaas said. “We don’t have any money for lawyers and, besides, how do you fight the railroad?”
The safety of many North Dakotans is at risk. It’s time to act.