Tuesday, October 15, 2013

20,000: Two Stories Of Water Pollution In The Dakotas

Two stories in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in the past week have caught my attention.  Coincidentally, both have to do with pollution of groundwater and with 20,000 units lost.

The first was a story about an oil pipeline leak in which 20,000 barrels of crude oil contaminated over seven acres of farmland.  The Argus reports that in major oil-producing states like North Dakota oil spills must be reported to the state, but state law does not mandate the release of this information to the public.  In other words, the state is free to keep this news quiet.  One has to assume that the state legislators who wrote that law thought it was in the public interest to keep news of toxic spills quiet.  It's better for us not to know about such things, I guess.

Anyway, the Argus lets us know that some state officials think there's no cause for concern: "state regulators say no water sources were contaminated, no wildlife was hurt and no one was injured." Oh, good.

The second story is about the disposal of some 20,000 cattle that died in a surprisingly early and heavy snowstorm earlier this month.  This is a devastating loss for ranchers across western South Dakota.  It represents an enormous financial loss, and it also creates a very difficult cleanup problem.  The best solution for disposal of all the carcasses so far has been to dig two large pits.  The Argus reports that there are strict regulations concerning the depth and soil of the pits.

According to the Argus, the reason for the pits is to make sure the dead cattle don't contaminate streams.

Which makes me wonder why there is so little concern for the oil spill in North Dakota.  Obviously there is an important difference between bacterial and viral infections entering streams, on the one hand, and oil entering streams on the other hand.  But surely both represent serious health hazards?

We are left with a peculiar contrast: a few cattle on the ground - something that happens in nature all the time - are a serious threat to the water, while a million gallons of crude oil spread across seven acres of farmland (presumably some rain falls there and washes into streams?) is barely worth telling the public about.


Update: Since a number of people have asked me just what happened to the cattle in South Dakota, I am posting this link that I found to be a helpful reply to some questions about the storm and the loss of the cattle.


  1. If word of the water pollution in NorthWestern North Dakota was known mainstream, all of the oil production there would be forced to stop. The State of North Dakota and its oil companies have all to lose and nothing to gain from a release of pollution information. Releasing the information will do nothing but involve the federal government and tree huggers; then everybody loses. I do not blame them for keeping such information private. Whereas, releasing information about cattle disposal doesn't risk destroying a regional economy.

    P.S. If you live in NorthWestern North Dakota it is common knowledge that you don't drink the tap water.

    1. I think you're spot on, Michael. The difference is not one of pollution risk so much as one of short-term economic risk. Of course, as is so often the case, long-term economic risks are left out of the equation because it is difficult and costly to include them. What is the long-term economic cost of seven acres of polluted farmland?

      If no one is doing it yet, North Dakota's state records of oil spills should be addressed by an investigative journalist and an armload of Freedom Of Information Act requests.