By Don Davis
Winona LaDuke plans to use her national notoriety to fight what she says are dangers caused by North Dakota’s oil boom, which also could affect Minnesota communities such as where she lives.
“I don’t approve of creating a national sacrifice area in North Dakota,” said LaDuke, an Indian rights activist, conservationist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate.
LaDuke’s comments follow by about a week the revelation of a 20,600-barrel oil spill from a Tioga, N.D. area oil pipeline. During much of the time since the late-September spill, LaDuke has been on horseback rides along routes of planned Minnesota and South Dakota oil pipelines.
Oil being produced in western North Dakota and sent elsewhere threatens water sources, added the woman who belongs to Minnesota’s White Earth Nation. “They aren’t going to be able to drink the water as this goes on.”
“It’s time to love North Dakota,” she said.
The pipeline break was discovered by a farmer combining wheat on Sept. 29 and made public last week. It is the largest spill of the current North Dakota oil boom.
Crews are cleaning it up and preparing to restore the site. Officials say the spill has not affected any water sources and crews are monitoring the area.
National attention has focused on the spill, and environmentalists fear North Dakota oil could present a problem well beyond that state’s borders. Pipelines, trains and trucks transport oil through a wide area of the country.
“I think it is a warning that we really need to get a handle on this because, depending on where a leak occurs, pipelines go through some pretty sensitive areas,” said Bismarck, N.D.-based Wayde Schafer of the Sierra Club. “It is sort of indicative of the fast pace of the oil development, the classic boom cycle where protections for the environment and people’s health lag behind the development.”
Tessa Sandstrom of the North Dakota Petroleum Council called the break “a worst-case scenario” and “regrettable.”
However, she said, “it is something the industry does train for” and the Tioga break was followed by a quick reaction once it was discovered.
“Energy companies have been moving oil and natural gas across North Dakota safely for decades, and the response by (pipeline owner) Tesoro and the state was effective in mitigating any long term damage…” Sandstrom said. “Pipelines remain the safest and most economic way to transport oil.”
The national Association of Oil Pipe Lines reports that pipeline breaks are rare and becoming less frequent as training and research increase. The association says the number of pipeline leaks fell about 60 percent in the past 10 years.
“Our goal is zero incidents,” John Stoody of the pipeline association said.
The North Dakota spill did not harm public health or sensitive environmental features, he said.
“Nonetheless, it is something we take very seriously,” Stoody said, adding that pipeline officials are eager to see a report about what caused the leak so they can improve safety.
Such comments do not convince LaDuke that oil pipelines are safe.
In an interview after wrapping up her northern Minnesota and South Dakota horseback rides along proposed pipeline routes, she said she has been thinking and praying about the North Dakota situation and plans to visit the state again to take up the issue.
She is a national board member of Greenpeace, the world’s largest environmental group.
She encourages her fellow American Indians to become involved.
“They are very spiritual people,” LaDuke said. “They don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists; they just want water.”
Last month’s pipeline break is only the beginning, she said. “There is an example of widespread contamination and more is likely to come.”
“My position is nobody has the right to compromise water,” LaDuke said. “That is not a private right. That is something we all need, and not just humans.”
The Tioga break came in a 6-inch pipe, while most pipelines LaDuke has been protesting are larger than 20 inches.
The Tioga break is a relatively small incident compared to what she fears could happen with bigger pipelines.
LaDuke said she is especially concerned with the Sandpiper line through northern North Dakota and Minnesota, taking oil to Superior, Wis. The pipeline route is close to her Minnesota home.
Another possible pipeline was announced late last month when the parent company of Minnesota Power in Duluth said it wants to create an energy corridor along existing power lines that could be used for natural gas and oil pipelines.
ALLETE, which recently acquired a 465-mile electrical transmission line from central North Dakota to Duluth, said it plans to work with other energy companies to locate pipelines along its existing right-of-way.
The Tioga pipeline incident could bring attention to the issue, LaDuke said. “I hope this wakes up some people in western North Dakota.”