“I have gone from living in an agricultural community to living in an industrial area.”
Telling personal stories
The oil and gas boom has been underway for a number of years in many locations across North America, and there are now a lot of stories about individuals and families whose lives have been personally affected. This post is part of a regular weekly series of those stories on this blog to help you envision what could happen if drilling expands along the Beartooth Front, and what is possible to keep that from happening.
Today’s story clearly illustrates the powerlessness of an individual property owner in the face of oil and gas drilling. The lack of response from the oil company, state agencies in North Dakota, and the EPA in the face of the Schilkes’ problems is a story that we’ve seen repeated all over the country. We know there are health impacts from drilling, but we aren’t clear on what they are, and we don’t even know what chemicals the drillers are using. The burden of proof is on the landowner, and the standards of proof are unclear.
You can see other personal stories in this series by clicking here. Note that you can find more by clicking “Older Posts” at the bottom of the page.
Steve and Jacki Schilke, Williston Basin, North Dakota
This story was first reported in January, 2012 by Deena Winter, then working with the Great Plains Examiner. Deena currently works for Nebraska Watchdog.
Steve and Jacki Schilke spent six years searching for their dream home, a 160-acre ranch here in northwestern North Dakota. It wasn’t much to see – an old farmhouse, a few rundown outbuildings and a slice of prairie. But for the Schilkes, it was a chance to return to country life.
“We came across this place and it was a dream come true,” said Jacki, remembering the day in 2006 when they bought the spread. “We didn’t ask for much. All we wanted was a little place for our cattle.”
But it wasn’t long before noisy drilling rigs, clogged roads and the chaos of the oil boom found the Schilkes and their piece of paradise.
Steve and Jacki Schilke understand oil: Jacki said she worked on drilling rigs in oilfields for seven years in the 1980s and Steve spent most of his life working in the oil business in Alaska and Canada. “There was no doubt in my mind that this was safe,” she said. “I’m familiar with the process from beginning to end.”
Animals get sick
Until, one by one, their animals started getting sick after an oil well was drilled on a hill about a half-mile away from their ranch.
First, Oasis Petroleum wanted to drill a well across the road from the Schilkes’ farm on a neighbor’s property. When workers started, they discovered the water level was too high, so they approached the Schilkes.
The Schilkes don’t own the mineral rights below their ranch, but were offered $10,000 to put a well pad on their property. Still, they declined.
“I have 160 acres and cattle – we don’t have a square inch to spare and they want four, five acres,” Jacki said.
So Oasis went to the neighbor to the west, just across the property line. Not long after the oil company started drilling in the summer of 2010, the Schilke’s 5-year-old dog, Blue, got sick and died. A few days after the wells were fracked, Jacki walked outside to work on a corral, and her lungs started burning. She ended up in an emergency room. She says tests showed high arsenic and germanium levels in her blood and urine.
One of Jacki’s four Yorkies fell ill – coughing up “yellow, foamy stuff” and producing diarrhea with blood. The veterinarian said it was an intestinal infection.
“The vet thought he got poisoned,” Jacki said. “We don’t have any poison on the place – not even mouse poison.”
After that, her cows, a pet goat, and a bull “went lame.” One of the cows died. Some of the animals went blind.
Cattle began limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves, they lost from 60 to 80 pounds in a week and their tails mysteriously dropped off. Eventually, five animals died.
“My vet was getting sick of us,” she said. “We were there constantly. They couldn’t figure it out.”
Jacki gets sick
Jacki began noticing that she felt sick when she went outside – she’d get lightheaded, dizzy and have trouble breathing. She saw local doctors for almost a year and they couldn’t pinpoint her problem.
“I was so sick last winter I thought I was gonna die,” she said.
She contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, and they referred her to the state health department. But the health department employee told her it was “probably just diesel fumes.” But she didn’t smell diesel.
“There was no smell to it, that was the scary part,” she said.
Water like 7 Up
One day she walked outside to pump water for her cattle, and the water came out bubbling.
“It was just like 7 Up. I stood there and I looked at it and I thought, ‘What the hell?’”
She filled up a five-gallon bucket of water and watched it bubble. She says it continued to bubble for three days. She took the water to Williston and had it tested in a lab, which found a high number of bicarbonates, total dissolved solids, sulfates and sodium.
The ranch had good well water – hard, rusty North Dakota groundwater – when they moved in. Now, sometimes the kitchen faucet spews black water, and she showed a visitor a jar as proof. Jacki’s doctor recommended the Schilkes not use the water anymore, so they go to a Laundromat 50 miles away and shower at the homes of friends in town. They haul drinking water from town in plastic jugs.
Kris Roberts, from the state water division, is skeptical of claims that water wells can be contaminated by oil activity. Roberts says the much-publicized natural gas fracking problems in Pennsylvania are primarily related to disposal of flowback water in municipal sewage systems. And despite many press reports indicating natural gas fracking has contaminated water wells, he says, “I’m going to keep an open mind on that until we see some good scientific papers showing it.”
Asked whether it’s possible that fracking could contaminate someone’s water, he conceded that it was possible. But then he continued, “that’s not happening.”
Roberts said that he and other staffers have visited the Schilke ranch, and so far, they’ve not found any environmental link to the Schilkes’ problems.
He said water samples showed no link to oilfield activities, and air tests only showed “ammonia-like compounds” inside her house and in one of the outbuildings. He said the only extreme readings came from cracks in the walls of her basement. State employees have covered a square mile with the instrument that checks air quality, he said, and detected no oilfield odors.
A very different version of events
Jacki’s version of events differs sharply: She says a state worker tested the air with a handheld device he had never used before and didn’t know how to calibrate. She said he stuck it in a manure pile at one point and couldn’t get it to go off.
Jacki says her own air quality tests showed benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and zylene. Some of those chemicals are found in cigarettes, vehicles with combustion engines, oil wells and pipelines. Her water tests found magnesium, maganese, boron and strontium and sulfates.
Roberts says Jacki has never sent him the results of her tests. “I’ve done as much as I can,” Roberts said.
Finally, Jacki saw a glimmer of hope when an EPA toxicologist said that based on her medical records and blood tests, it’s likely an air quality problem. However, the EPA official said, North Dakota has jurisdiction. The EPA suggested Jacki call a lawyer.
So she did hire a lawyer and began to work on a strategy for leaving town.
Jacki now leaves her windows open year-round – no matter how far below zero the temperature drops – and bought a carbon monoxide detector and explosive gas alarm. She says if she closes her windows, the monitors chirp.
“They chirped for nine days straight in the winter when it was 20 below,” she said.
She’s spent $3,800 on water tests and nearly $9,000 on air tests. She has taken two trips to see a Detroit doctor and one at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. She figures she’s spent almost $30,000 total on tests and doctors in the past year.
She called the owner of the oil well, Oasis Petroleum, and was told her problems were probably caused by farm chemicals. She is appalled that the oil company blames the farmers.
Oasis Petroleum representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Dale Henry, the expert on fracking and cementing, said oil companies always take that position. “They’re going to defend their position from the very start,” he said.
The Schilkes and Oasis couldn’t even agree on basic facts when a heater treater, which separates oil, water and solids, blew out at the well on Dec. 30, 2010. Oasis initially estimated one gallon of fluid from the flare pit was released. Jacki said it was much more than that.
Strange things keep happening at the Schilkes’ farm. The creek didn’t freeze, despite frigid North Dakota temperatures and some days it bubbled with warm water. Another day it was covered with white foam.
She believes the cows got sick from something in the creek, so the Schilkes fenced it off and trained the cows to drink the well water.
According to state drilling records, when the Oasis well was fracked, about 4.7 million pounds of “frac sand” were detonated underground to open up cracks and allow the oil to flow. The oil industry says this “frac sand” is 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand and .5 percent chemicals the industry refuses to disclose.
Drilling problems up the hill
State records show that when the well up the hill from Schilkes was being drilled, drillers ran into circulation problems 102 to 158 feet below the surface.
Henry said the records indicate the drillers hit an area with high permeability and poor porosity.
“You already know from drilling the hole you’ve got problems at that depth,” he said. “When you run the casing and get ready to do cement, if those problems already exist, you better try to take care of them because the same problem will (occur) when you put cement (down). The possibility of losing way more fluid is even higher.”
Henry thinks that’s how the Schilkes’ water may have been contaminated.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, director of the climate and energy program at Western Environmental Law Center, said the pace of an oil boom often outpaces the scientific understanding of the environmental impacts.
“A lot of times it’s not well known precisely what the impacts are, but the production goes ahead anyway,” Schlenker-Goodrich said.
Today, wells, drilling rigs, compressor stations, water stations and trucks carrying oil and water pock the prairie in the oil patch around Williston. Farmland is crisscrossed with pipelines to move oil.
“I have gone from living in an agricultural community to living in an industrial area,” Jacki said. Now, two oil pumpers bob up and down relentlessly on the hill and another oil well was recently fracked to the east of their home. Trucks regularly rumble by on the gravel roads, which crumble in places, strained by the weight, and kicking dust into the Schilke farmyard.
That’s also how Schlenker-Goodrich describes an oil patch: like a big factory spread across thousands of acres.
Steve Schilke, a burly man of fewer words than his wife, says the Bakken boom has just been “too much, too fast,” without enough supervision and regulation.
Steve and Jacki don’t intend to wait around for the state or science to catch up with the boom: they have been trying to move to Montana for two years, but have had trouble selling their property. They want to get out of the Bakken and move to an area where there is no oil and gas activity.