Who Will Take Responsibility?

Jorgenson Valley, soon to be crossed by a pipeline, November 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Jorgenson Valley, soon to be crossed by a pipeline, November 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

May 2012

The word “sacrament” comes to mind as Terry and I drive into Brenda and Richard Jorgenson’s Box J Ranch north of Tioga on a chilly spring afternoon. A sacrament is an outward sign of invisible, inward grace, and that’s how the Jorgensons see the landscape surrounding us now.

They run 100 Black Angus cattle on 2,240 acres at the north end of the White Earth Valley, much of it native prairie. They also farm flax, alfalfa, and spring wheat. “I feel the bond to this place in my soul,” Brenda told us when we first met a year ago. “Providing food is our mission and calling.”

On this afternoon, they serve lunch and then bring out arrowheads and other Native American artifacts and display them on the dining room table. It’s a large collection, gathered over the years since Richard’s Norwegian ancestors homesteaded here almost a century ago.

Artifacts found on Jorgenson land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Artifacts found on Jorgenson land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

As Terry takes photographs, Brenda describes a discussion last year with a state oil and gas regulator about an oil drilling waste pit on the ranch. He claimed the plastic liner in the pit, the barrier between toxic liquids and their soil, would last for at least 40 years. “You won’t be around after that anyway,” he said. “What do you care what happens after you’re gone?”

“A chasm separates that way of thinking and ours,” Brenda tells us. “We’ve had the privilege of living here and calling it home because generations before us cared for the land. We owe it to future generations to do the same.”

For the tour, we get into their SUV and drive about ½ mile to a field where they used to grow flax. The first – and so far only – oil well on their property went up here in late 2010. We walk across the five-acre pad, covered in red scoria, past a pumpjack and tanks of oil and salt water, and stop before a long line of Russian olive trees planted 30 years ago. Many of the trees have died, and others are clearly dying. A plant pathologist and county agent have documented the losses in letters to the oil company, with no response so far. Brenda shows us a photograph she took of a road grader moving earth at the far edge of the pad, damaging some trees. She believes other trees may have died from toxic fumes or hydrological changes caused by compaction that cut off sources of water.

This early damage to a symbol of good stewardship (the trees prevented soil erosion) played a key role in making Brenda an activist. She often says the oil boom has turned her into something she never was before: angry, assertive, and outspoken. When the trees began dying, she wrote letters of complaint to the oil company and various regulatory agencies and published a short piece in the newsletter of the Dakota Resource Council, a grassroots organization working to improve conditions for landowners in the oil patch:


A waste pit near the trees, which is filled in now, overflowed during the 2011 spring thaw (along with 56 others around the Bakken), sending unknown toxic fluids across the road between Brenda’s and her daughter’s houses and down towards the White Earth River. In the days that followed, members of Brenda’s extended family were exposed to fumes from those fluids while walking or driving on the road. Brenda, her son-in-law, and granddaughter got sick with symptoms including cough, laryngitis, and burning eyes. Brenda tried, but failed, to get the contents of the pit tested. No company or regulatory agency would do it for her, and it would have cost $2,700 to get it done herself. She wrote letters to the oil company, which told her it had followed “standard procedures” in disposing of the waste, and she also wrote to county, state, and federal regulatory agencies, with no result. Most people she called on the telephone said, “This isn’t our responsibility.”

At that point she began addressing her letters, “To whoever will take responsibility.”

Oil pad at Jorgenson's driveway, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Oil pad at Jorgenson’s driveway, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Our next stop is a larger oil pad on the other side of the road. Though it’s not on Jorgenson land, it’s at the bottom of their driveway and dominates the area southwest of their house, as Terry’s photograph shows. The company is about to expand this pad for more wells. Thousands of dust-creating truck-trips are necessary for the disruptive drilling and fracking, and Brenda and Richard dread what lies ahead. A gas flare burns above the pad, which is located just 800 feet from their living room. As we reported in an earlier entry, the flare has blown out six times, forcing them to flee their home and move animals away from gas fumes.

From there, we drive on prairie trails across the ranch through green pastures and stop at a line of electric power poles recently erected to serve the oil industry. Richard has heard that 4,900 new wells will be drilled in this county, Mountrail, in the next few years. He doesn’t know yet how many will be built on, or near, his and Brenda’s land. They own only 137 mineral acres under their 2,240 acres. The rest had already been sold when Richard’s father bought most of the property where they now ranch and farm.

We drive by Battle Hill, where the Sioux and Assiniboine fought, and pause by the ruins of a barn Richard’s grandfather built in 1915. From there we head downhill across the narrow White Earth River (called “the creek” here) and stop near a new oil road slashed through native prairie to service a large pad under construction on property owned by Richard’s cousin. Dirt and equipment block the road to the Jorgenson’s farm fields just to the north. Richard politely asks a construction worker, “How can I get to my fields?” The man assures him the blockage will be removed soon, but the question echoes in my mind.

How many more disruptions to their lives will the Jorgensons be able to stand?

Later, back at the house, Brenda points through the living room window to prairie hills and coulees where a wide trench will soon be dug for a 12” high-pressure gas pipeline that will cut through their property on its way from Tioga to a main line about 80 miles away. They and a group of neighbors have struggled for more than a year to stop construction of the pipeline in this beautiful place. They organized a prayer circle on the designated land, testified in legislative hearings, and wrote dozens of petitions and letters, but now they have lost the battle. By late winter, the prairie along a wide swath of the ranch will be torn up. Though the company promises to put the topsoil back, it will never be the same.

Richard says, “When the construction is finished, we’ll have a bomb in our backyard,” referring to the explosive potential of gas under 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch.

What have the Jorgensons gained from the oil boom? Not much, and even if they were getting rich, it wouldn’t change how they feel about damage to their land. They got a one-time surface-rights payment for the well on their property down the road and are receiving royalties for the 38 mineral acres they own that have been drilled so far. Their other mineral acres have been leased out, but the company hasn’t informed Richard and Brenda where, when – or if – it plans to drill.

March 25, 2013

I call the Jorgensons for fact-checking and Richard answers. It has been snowing during these early days of their calving season, and he and Brenda had rescued two newborn calves from snow so deep they couldn’t stand up. Pulling them on a sled behind a snowmobile, the Jorgensons took the calves into the barn and fed them by bottle the first night. The next day, Richard brought one of the mothers into the barn so both calves could be taught how to nurse (cold and separation had interrupted instincts), and then he took all three back onto snowy prairie, where the second calf was reunited with its mother. Four other calves have since been born, and so far all are thriving.

In our conversation, Richard tells me that he and Brenda wouldn’t lease any of their mineral acres for oil drilling if they had it to do again. The action would have been symbolic – a refusal to accept income born of destruction – and wouldn’t have prevented drilling on their former flax field or more wells on the ranch in the future. Like the Davises, the Jorgensons can’t prevent oil companies from reaching mineral acres other people own.

But there is one “ray of hope,” he says. The newest well on the pad at the bottom of the driveway is pumping only around 100 barrels of petroleum a day, not enough to pay for the $13 million it cost to drill.

“If the yield is this low, perhaps they won’t come back,” he tells me, but I hear little optimism in his voice.

Brenda is now a key member of the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) task force responsible for directing the organization’s work on oil and gas issues. She also works closely with the more conservative Northwest Landowners’ Association (NLA) in advocating surface owners’ rights. She has testified on numerous bills before legislative committees in Bismarck and is helping lobby for legislation that would mandate the placement of oil operations at least 1,000 feet from dwellings, not 500 feet as allowed now. DRC task force members have circulated a petition in favor of the legislation, which hundreds of people have signed. The state’s top oil and gas regulators oppose the change, and it is unlikely to pass, but the movement to “build a better Bakken” has had some success, as we’ll see in a future entry of this blog.

Brenda Jorgenson, farmer/rancher and steward of the land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Brenda Jorgenson, farmer/rancher and steward of the land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.