MANDAREE, North Dakota (AP) — Growing up, Ruth Anna Buffalo would follow the dirt track behind her house into the rugged North Dakota badlands, swimming in creeks picketed with beaver dams, finding artifacts and climbing bluffs overlooking Lake Sakakawea. For the young, the lake and the land around it were a wonderland.
Buffalo’s grandfather, though, looked at the lake with pained eyes. Created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ building of the Garrison Dam in the 1940s and ’50s, it flooded out a significant portion of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and swallowed his town of Elbowoods. Families were forced to leave their homes for higher ground.
Now, drilling rigs are visible in the hills behind Buffalo’s childhood home in the small town of Mandaree and the trail to the lake is pockmarked with oil and gas development.
“It feels like this is the modern day flooding of our land,” Buffalo said.
For many Native Americans on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation — a land that accounts for 300,000 of the 1 million barrels of oil produced by North Dakota daily — there is a difficult balance between the potential prosperity that oil and gas development can bring and the preservation of a land considered by cultural and religious tradition to be sacred. That dilemma has been brought to the fore this month since 1 million gallons of saltwater, a byproduct of oil and gas production, spewed from an underground pipeline into the badlands near Mandaree.
Crestwood Midstream Partners LP, whose subsidiary Arrow Pipeline LLC owns the pipeline, says the toxic fluid travelled a snaking, nearly 2-mile path down into a ravine, eradicating a 200-yard stretch of vegetation along its way. But the company says there is no evidence the saltwater made its way into Lake Sakakawea, which provides drinking water for the reservation.
Among residents of the reservation, there is an environmental concern not often exhibited elsewhere in North Dakota’s booming oil patch. Roadside signs at Mandaree’s entrance invoke the wisdom of the elders, encouraging tribal members and visitors to the reservation to respect the land and air around them.
“The elders say land is our mother,” reads one. “Don’t litter on our mother! Protect our mother!”
Another reads “Water and air is life! Protect our future generation!”
The leadership of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation says oil and gas development in recent years has rescued the reservation from the poverty that afflicts many reservations across the United States.
But prosperity is difficult to see in Mandaree, which had a population of just under 600 in the 2010 census. Unkempt grass rises in most lawns, some cradling abandoned vehicles or rusting propane tanks. Mangy dogs traipse the streets. The windows of some homes are boarded up or cracked.
“We should all be basking in wealth, but we’re not,” said 60-year-old Mandaree resident Katherine Young Bear. “We still have poverty — huge, horrible poverty — on the reservation.”
“As far as I’m concerned they should take it away and be done with it because it’s killing our mother earth,” she added, referring to oil and gas extraction.
The only shop in town is a small gas station convenience store. Harriet Goodiron, who works there, says radioactive oil filter socks — the tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process — were found near her home last year. Oil companies are supposed to haul them to approved waste facilities in other states.
Goodiron is concerned about the lasting impact of oil development on the land and its people.
“Once this is all over they’re going to up and leave, with frack socks laying all over and saltwater spills in our water that we drink,” she said. “Now, after that spill happened, whenever I brush my teeth, do I know that the water I’m drinking, is it safe? Is it going to give me cancer one day?”