Like a lot of guys my age, I have a hearing problem: in a loud environment, the noise in the background overwhelms what someone is saying directly to me in the foreground.
Sometimes, in the news world, the problem is exactly the opposite: the story of the day hides the much bigger story lurking in the background.
That certainly seems to be the case in an Associated Press story in Saturday’s papers out of Bismarck, North Dakota. The lead is simple and big enough: “When a pipeline rupture sent more than 20,000 barrels of crude spewing across a North Dakota wheat field, it took nearly two weeks for officials to tell the public about it.”
In case you’re wondering, 20,600 barrels of crude is enough to cover 7 football fields. That’s quite a lot of gunk, but there is no evidence to suggest that Tesoro Corp., which owns the pipeline involved even noticed. If they did (and there is no evidence that anyone has asked them when they did become aware), they didn’t mention it to anyone. Then a farmer running his combine across a field near the town of Tioga noticed its tires were coated in crude. He called authorities at the North Dakota Health Department who came, saw, and kept it quiet.
The Health Department’s excuses? The usual: they thought the spill was small; it was in a remote area; and they say (on the basis of what is left unclear) that no water was contaminated and no wildlife adversely affected. Hey, what’s a 7.3 acre puddle of crude oil among friends?
In fact, once they had established the scale of the spill, (it’s one of the largest in the state’s history) they gave no notice to the public, or it seems, ND Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Silence ruled until the Associated Press asked the Health Department about it directly.
“It shows an attitude of our current state government and what they think of the public," Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, told the AP. "It's definitely worrisome. There is a pattern in current state government to not involve the public."
Aha! Now, we’re getting closer to the big story here: official cover-ups of oil spills in big oil states are commonplace, and THERE'S NOTHING ILLEGAL ABOUT IT!
As AP notes near the bottom of its report: “Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Health Department, said that while companies must notify the state of any spills, the state doesn't have to release that information to the public. That's not unusual in major oil-producing states: Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas also do not require the government to publicly report spills.
That arrangement is just fine with Roberts, who told AP: “"We deal with a spill and make sure it's cleaned up. We don't issue press releases." But “we” did, Roberts told AP, “work with Tesoro in crafting a company news release,” congratulating everyone concerned for what are called “proactive response efforts."
Brian Kalk, chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, told AP there was nothing proactive about the pipeline company or the Health Department’s efforts to notify him. He learned about the spill when the public did, 11 days after the Health Department knew, and even longer after the pipeline started leaking crude.
"There is almost a million gallons of product on the ground,” Kalk said, “and we need to find out what happened. "
As far as federal involvement, the Environmental Protection Agency was notified of the spill but has no jurisdiction because water sources weren't affected, Roberts said. Officials from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration were on site last week, he said, but AP notes, “Efforts to reach the agency Friday were not successful due to the federal government shutdown.” Anybody wanna bet on how many Feds have actually checked for Pipeline or Hazmat Safety at the scene? Yeah, who needs a government anyway?
Meanwhile, in farmer Steve Jensen's wheat field, work was continuing, and will last, according to the Health Department, from "a couple of months to a couple of years."
Jensen says his wheat field looks like "an excavation war zone," and is ruined for farming for the next few years.
Which would seem to indicate that the crude will be sitting out in farmer Jensen's field for a while, making those assurances that neither land nor groundwater nor wildlife were damaged seem a bit premature, if not outright bull-spill. Says the Dakota Resource Council's Morrison, "When seven acres of agricultural land is affected and they say there was no environmental impact, it defies common sense and logic."
While Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club told AP, "Obviously, if you have an oil spill, some species of wildlife are going to be impacted."
Another impact of a spill might be on citizens asked to vote to approve oil pipelines across their states, or at least to vote for politicians who vote yea or nay on, say, the Keystone Pipeline Project. When spills are legally covered up, as they presently can be in such Keystone-crossing states as Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, those votes are taken in ignorance. Just the way pipeline companies and oil state office-holders seem to like it.