FBI investigating New Town death

NEW TOWN, N.D. – The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating a death that occurred in New Town, but authorities are releasing few details.

The FBI was notified Monday evening of the death of a male, said FBI spokesman Kyle Loven.

The FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs are investigating, but are unable to provide further information, he said.

“At this point, it’s an active investigation,” Loven said.

New Town is on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

New Town Police Chief Art Walgren said the death occurred in the city, but he could not say where or release any other information.

“We are involved, but only as an assisting agency,” Walgren said.

OSHA investigates 3 workplace deaths in northwest North Dakota

BISMARCK — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating three possible workplace deaths that resulted from two unrelated incidents in northwest North Dakota.

Watford City police reported to OSHA on Monday that an employee of Power Fuels died on Friday, possibly as a result of cleaning the inside of a tank, said Eric Brooks, area director of the Bismarck OSHA office.

An OSHA team is expected to investigate the site today, Brooks said. The man’s name has not been released.

Watford City Police Chief Jesse Wellen said it’s unclear if the man’s death was work-related. The man died at his apartment building and officials decided to get OSHA involved to assist with the investigation, Wellen said.

“We just got them (OSHA) involved because there was an outside belief that it could have been work-related, but there’s nothing right now that says it is,” Wellen said. “We’re waiting until the case is closed.”

The man was taken to the North Dakota Forensic Medical Examiner in Bismarck for an autopsy, Wellen said.

Power Fuels is an oilfield service and transportation business. The company did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

The OSHA team also will investigate the deaths of two men who died after falling more than 200 feet from a tower in Mountrail County, Brooks said.

Mountrail County Sheriff Ken Halvorson said in a news release his office received a 911 call at 11:30 a.m. Monday after Namon Smith, 42, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Zachary Roberts, 25, Lakeland, Ga., fell from a tower about six miles northeast of New Town.

The men were working at the 250-foot level of a 300-foot tower when one worker fell and struck the other worker, causing him to also fall, Halvorson said. Both men wore harnesses and hard hats and the reason for the safety equipment failure is under investigation, he said.

The men worked for Monarch Towers of Sarasota, Fla., which is a subcontractor of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the news release said. They were working to reinforce a tower owned by Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative so more equipment could be added to the tower, authorities said.

Both men were transported to Bismarck for autopsies.

The Bismarck OSHA office has investigated 12 workplace fatalities in North Dakota since Oct. 1, Brooks said. Eight of those fatalities related to the oil and gas industry.

Faces of the Boom: Dickinson woman proud to return to N.D. oil industry

Erin Wanner, a land professional for Whiting Oil and Gas in Dickinson, N.D., is pictured Tuesday, June 11, 2013, at the company’s office near New Town, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Erin Wanner grew up in a family that owned an oil service company, but she never thought about the industry as a career option for herself.

That all changed after the Dickinson native earned a master’s degree in business and the best job she could find was managing a Walgreens.

“That was the only choice I had. There were not jobs,” said Wanner, who was working in Dallas at the time. “And I had a master’s degree and it was really disappointing.”

In 2005, Wanner decided to return to North Dakota and work with the company owned by her father and uncle, now known as MBI Energy Services.

That led her to opportunities with other oil companies in North Dakota. She began as a landman, pulling deeds at the courthouse and doing title research. After gaining experience with mineral rights, Wanner began working with landowners to negotiate surface use agreements to drill for oil on their land.

Wanner now works as a land professional for Whiting Oil and Gas in Dickinson, overseeing surface operations in North Dakota and eastern Montana. That includes working with landowners and helping implement a program to control dust on gravel roads near the oil activity.

“We work really hard to be a good neighbor and do whatever we can as far as the roads and the fences and all those sort of things to do the right thing,” she said.

Wanner, a graduate of Trinity High School in Dickinson and Dickinson State University, spoke last week to a teacher education seminar at Whiting’s offices near New Town. She encourages other women to consider the oil industry as a career option.

“People need to realize that there’s not just working a shovel or working a wrench in the oilfield,” Wanner said. “There’s every aspect of every industry, there’s finance, marketing, IT.”

While many jobs in the oilfield require long hours and rotating shifts, Wanner said her job allows her to work Monday through Friday. She also has enough free time to participate in rodeos and coach high school girls’ basketball.

Although she didn’t expect to wind up in North Dakota’s oil industry, she said she’s now proud to be a part of it.

“The whole world is watching at this point and to be a part of it, it’s really exciting,” Wanner said.

Tour helps teachers apply lessons on oil

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, demonstrates what frac sand looks like to a group of teachers who toured oil well sites on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, in Mountrail County. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. – The next time Rita West’s math students ask how they will ever use geometry, she’ll have a real-world answer from North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The teacher from Red River High School in Grand Forks and about 40 other teachers from around the state are attending a North Dakota Petroleum Council training seminar this week.

“The primary goal is to send the teachers with lessons about how math and science are applicable right here in North Dakota,” said Ron Ness, president of the Petroleum Council, a trade association.

For West, one lesson she’ll bring back to her students is that geometry is important for calculating volumes of oil.

The teachers toured oil well sites in Mountrail County on Tuesday to learn about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing up close. They also heard from oil industry representatives during classroom sessions at the offices of Whiting Oil and Gas.

Mindy Johnson, who teaches physical science at West Fargo’s Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center, said it was helpful to learn about the oil industry careers that require a college education.

West Fargo English teacher Mary Conant, who teaches at the same school, said the oil industry may be a subject that her students will want to research.

“It’s kind of neat to find some new and local topics they can look into,” Conant said.

Representatives from the Delegation of the European Union to the United States also participated in Tuesday’s tour to learn more about the potential of shale development.

“We are stunned,” said Thomas Stoelzl, an economic counselor from the Embassy of Austria. “The technical process is so exciting. It’s fascinating.”

The four-day seminar, which began Monday, also includes educational courses in Bismarck. Today’s session will feature a tour of the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan.

This is the 26th year of the teacher education seminar, said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, who also led some of the classes. By training the teachers, the group can reach students all across North Dakota, Helms said.

“We are excited about trying to reach grade school kids primarily to talk to them about career opportunities in the oil and gas industry,” Helms said.

Oil companies continue Pick Up the Patch campaign

Volunteers clean up a ditch near Dickinson, N.D., this spring. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Petroleum Council

TIOGA, N.D. — Volunteers from oil and gas companies will clean up litter from roadways in Tioga today, continuing the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s Pick Up the Patch initiative that has already involved 500 employees this spring.

Dozens of energy companies have helped pick up more than 900 bags of trash and clean 20 miles of roadway in western North Dakota during the past four weeks. Cleanup efforts have been held in New Town, Williston and Dickinson.

Today’s event focuses on the Tioga area and an event Friday focuses on the Minot area.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council launched the campaign last spring to clean up debris left behind after the snow melted. Last year, more than 70 companies and 1,000 volunteers picked up more than 200 miles of roadways.

Tribe says oil tax changes don’t go far enough

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall speaks Tuesday, May 7, 2013, at the Oil and Gas Expo in New Town, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. – A new tribal oil tax agreement is a “huge improvement” but still contains bad language that doesn’t recognize tribal sovereignty, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said Tuesday.

“I do not believe the state of North Dakota has regulatory jurisdiction over the tribe,” Hall said during the first day of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Oil and Gas Expo, prompting applause from the crowd.

North Dakota lawmakers approved House Bill 1198 on Friday that establishes guidelines for the governor to renegotiate an agreement with the tribes that would split oil tax revenues equally, sending more money to the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Currently, the state collects 80 percent of some of the oil tax revenue and the reservation receives 20 percent.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the bill Monday, but he still needs to meet with tribal leadership to renegotiate the 2008 agreement.

Hall said in an interview Tuesday he’s not sure if he will sign the agreement if some of the language he objects to can’t be renegotiated.

“There are some serious misunderstandings by state legislators who think this is their tax money,” Hall said. “It’s our oil that you’re taxing and then nothing’s coming back.”

During the expo, Tribal Vice Chairman Fred Fox said the new agreement is progress, but he still thinks the tribe should get more tax revenue.

“It’s something that we’ll take inch by inch, but we’re not satisfied,” Fox said. “I think we should be getting 100 percent of that tax, not 50 percent.”

The expo, with the theme, “Sovereignty by the Barrel,” continues today and will conclude with a groundbreaking ceremony for the tribal-owned Thunder Butte Refinery near Makoti.

Protesters gather Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in New Town, N.D., to show their opposition for the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara National Oil and Gas Expo. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

About 20 people protested the expo, with neon signs such as “Get the frack out of here,” “Tribal members need homes” and “Opposed to refinery.”

Juliane Gillette of New Town, a member of a group called Save Our Aboriginal Resources, said she and others worry about effects on the environment and object to how tribal leadership is managing the oil development.

“They’re representing the oil companies right now and they’re not representing the people,” Gillette said.

State, tribal leaders work on new oil tax agreement

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Oil drilling on the Fort Berthold Reservation could be in danger if state legislators and tribal leaders can’t reach an agreement on how to share the oil tax revenue.

Leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes are working with state legislators to amend a 2008 agreement that Chairman Tex Hall says is unfair to the reservation.

A proposal would send more money to the reservation, but Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said it has an “uphill climb” in the state Legislature if it doesn’t include a stipulation that the tribes spend a portion of the tax dollars on improving roads.

Hall and tribal leaders strongly object to the state telling the tribes how to spend their money and trying to exert jurisdiction over trust lands. One proposal called for the tribes to use 10 percent of new revenue for infrastructure, but the state has not committed to do the same with dollars generated on the reservation, Hall said.

“Why doesn’t the state be accountable for $314 million?” Hall said, referring to the amount of tax revenue the state has collected from oil wells on the reservation. “Why don’t they do 10 percent? It works both ways.”

The issue is critical for the entire state because tribal leaders have indicated in negotiations that they would break the existing agreement if a compromise isn’t reached, Wardner said. That could result in the tribes charging a tax on top of the state’s tax, making it too costly for companies to drill on the reservation.

“If the oil companies stop drilling, we all lose,” Wardner said.

The major oil companies that operate on the reservation have signed a letter supporting the tribes.

“We want more of our dollars going back to the tribal entities to address issues on the reservation,” said Ron Ness, executive director for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry trade group.

Prior to the 2008 agreement, there had not been a well drilled on Fort Berthold trust lands in 27 years because of the unstable and unpredictable tax and regulatory structure, Ness said.

In 2008, the state and tribes agreed to have one tax structure with oil companies paying a 6.5 percent extraction tax and a 5 percent production tax, the same taxes that companies pay in the rest of the state.

For wells drilled on trust lands, that revenue is divided equally between the state and the tribe.

On fee lands, which are privately owned lands on the reservation, the state receives 80 percent of the production tax and the tribes receive 20 percent of that tax.

The agreement has a five-year exemption on the extraction tax on fee land, with the state receiving 100 percent of that tax after the exemption expires. Because the agreement is about five years old, the state is just starting to collect extraction tax on fee lands, Wardner said.

Under the new proposal, that five-year tax holiday would be eliminated and the state and tribes would equally split the extraction and production taxes on fee lands.

A projection by the North Dakota Tax Department estimates the tribes would receive an additional $81 million in 2013-15 and nearly $232 million in the 2015-17 biennium under the proposal.

The state is estimated to gain $6 million in 2013-15 but lose nearly $76 million in 2015-17 compared to the current agreement, according to the projections.

Legislators are in favor of dividing the tax revenue equally, but they want to see a portion of the dollars targeted for improving roads, said Wardner, R-Dickinson.

“The roads are shot up there,” Wardner said, referring to the reservation. “It (the proposal) will not pass muster in these chambers unless there’s some accountability.”

Hall said he’s asked the state to account for how it spent oil taxes generated on the reservation and didn’t get an answer.

“If you ask us how we spend our money, we get to ask you,” Hall said.

Hall points out that the reservation is not eligible to apply for state energy-impact grants, even though the reservation generates oil revenue and is experiencing the same impacts that other Oil Patch communities are.

“That’s a slap in the face,” Hall said.

Wardner said the city of New Town is eligible for the grants but has never applied.

The industry is following the negotiations closely because companies could not afford to operate on the reservation if the tribes and the state can’t agree on a single tax structure, Ness said. Already companies have additional costs to drill on tribal lands, Ness said.

“The costs become pretty much prohibitive as you add potential additional taxes on top of that,” Ness said.

House Bill 1234, which deals with several oil issues, includes a recommendation to split the oil tax revenue equally, but it does not include a requirement for the tribes to spend money on roads, Wardner said.

The Senate Finance and Taxation Committee voted 7-0 to give the bill a do pass recommendation Thursday. The amendments will be discussed on the Senate floor today, and then the bill will go to Senate Appropriations next week, Wardner said.

If the bill is approved, it will give Gov. Jack Dalrymple some parameters to work with and he will meet with tribal leaders to renegotiate the agreement, Wardner said.

Hall said tribal leaders also want to remove a clause in the agreement that gives the state jurisdiction to regulate oil and gas activities on the reservation.

If a compromise cannot be reached, the issue would come back to the tribal council and leaders would decide whether they can live with it or they could vote to terminate the agreement with the state, Hall said.

Fort Berthold had 28 drilling rigs operating during the most recent monthly update from the state Department of Mineral Resources.

Heitkamp says reservation housing problems ‘extreme’

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., signs autographs Wednesday, April 3, 2013, for Head Start students in New Town, N.D., during a tour of the area. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. – American Indians are often a forgotten population in Washington, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Wednesday.

Heitkamp, D.-N.D., told members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation she is working to elevate issues from reservations, with a particular focus on addressing the housing crisis.

Although many North Dakota communities say their No. 1 issue is housing, the housing shortage is more pronounced on American Indian reservations, she said.

“You are probably extreme in your housing difficulties,” Heitkamp said during a meeting with tribal elders.

On the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which Heitkamp toured Wednesday, it’s common for three or four generations to live in the same house, Heitkamp said. Often those residents are making good salaries, but they’re forced to live in cramped conditions because there is no other option, she said.

Representatives of Fort Berthold Housing Authority told Heitkamp their stock of housing is from the late 1960s and early 1970s with infrastructure that is failing.

“People cannot live like this,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp said her visit to Williston earlier this week attracted several housing developers, but they weren’t interested in talking to her about developing housing on the reservation. She said she wants to work to identify impediments to private investment on the reservations.

Reba White Shirt-Bruce, who attended a meeting with Heitkamp, suggested that North Dakota recruit out-of-work architects and housing developers from other parts of the country to build housing on the reservation.

One challenge to solving the housing crisis is that many federal programs are based on rental prices and wages rates that are too low for western North Dakota, Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp said she is positioned to bring the unique housing issues to Washington through her appointments on the Indian Affairs Committee and the Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee in the Senate.

Heitkamp is scheduled to be in Valley City today and Fargo on Friday.

Lake Sakakawea response team tries to answer: What if?

Oil activity stretches across the northwest part of North Dakota including along Lake Sakakawea near New Town as seen Monday, July 12, 2009.

NEW TOWN, N.D. – A December oil well blowout east of here had minimal effect on Lake Sakakawea, but it was too close for comfort for those who love the lake.

“Our concern was: What if? What if that water hadn’t been ice covered? What if it was spring?” said Terry Fleck, chairman of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea. “Those of us who touch it, feel it, love it, we were worried.”

Fleck, who lives in Bismarck and has a home on the Van Hook Arm of the lake, said the incident underscored the need for a plan to protect Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River.

“We’ve got to protect it to the best of our ability,” Fleck said. “We need to make sure we’ve got a plan in place to take care of her.”

Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Water Quality, said the state and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together to develop a plan.

“We know it’s a critical aspect of what’s going on in North Dakota right now,” Roberts said.

Steven Way, who works with emergency response for EPA Region 8, said the plan being developed this year will include specific strategies and criteria to guide cleanup and response efforts to protect certain environments. The plan will address both Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River system.

The EPA began meeting with local, state and federal agencies last year and will continue the work this year, Way said. Field work will be conducted this summer and the final plan is expected to be ready by early 2014, although some information will be made available prior to that, Way said.

Once a plan is established, it will be key for companies and agencies to train so they can respond quickly and effectively, Roberts said.

“On a waterway like that, the faster the better, but it has to be effective,” Roberts said.

In the December incident in which an oily mist spewed from a well until crews got it under control, a “very small amount” of oil ended up spraying onto the ice-covered lake, Roberts said. The snow that contained the oil was scraped off and removed from a bay area, he said.

If the lake had not been ice-covered, Roberts said he expects that a sheen may have been on the water in the bay area, but it may not have been visible.

“I don’t know how noticeable it would have even been,” Roberts said.

Industry response

Nine companies have formed the Sakakawea Area Spill Response to give members additional resources in the event of an oil spill that would affect Lake Sakakawea, said Bob Dundas, chairman of the group. The group is voluntary.

“The founding members saw the need and the importance of protecting these resources,” said Dundas, who works as environmental coordinator for Bridger Pipeline.

The organization is about a year old and has invested $325,000 in equipment that members can access in addition to the companies’ own resources. The group bought two boats for rapid response and two 28-foot spill response trailers with containment booms, oil skimmers, generators, lights and other equipment, Dundas said.

The equipment is stored in New Town, although the boats were not on the lake but in Arnegard last month to have some work done, Dundas said.

Members have held one training session with the equipment but have not had to use it on a spill, Dundas said.

“Ultimately that’s our hope is you never have to use this except for training,” Dundas said.

There is a process in place for non-members to access the equipment, Dundas said. The group is talking to additional companies about becoming involved. Initially organizers hoped to get 12 to 15 companies participating, Dundas said.

In the event of a spill, the responsibility falls to that operator, not the organization.

“SASR itself is not responsible for the spill,” Dundas said.

Todd Lindquist, U.S. Corps of Engineers Garrison Project manager, said companies that have leases on federal property are required to have spill response plans.

“I think the industry is taking a potential risk seriously and trying to be prepared in the event that something did happen,” Lindquist said.

The Corps has had training with state agencies and is working with the EPA on its plan, Lindquist said.

The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services’ state emergency operations plan includes protocols on how to respond to hazardous materials incidents, said Cecily Fong, public information officer. If an incident were too large for local agencies to handle, support from the department’s hazmat teams could be requested, she said.

‘Not if, but when’

Bismarck company Bakken Western Services, a subsidiary of Carbontec, has a product called CCD Chips that are essentially dried wood chips with a special coating that makes them repel water but adhere to oil.

Brett Gendreau, sales representative for Bakken Western Services, demonstrates how a product called CCD Chips can remove oil from a waterway. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

The company teamed up with Double M Helicopters of Mandan to develop a plan they say would quickly and effectively respond to an oil spill on Lake Sakakawea.

Oil spreads quickly when it hits the water, particularly lighter oils such as Bakken crude, said Brett Gendreau, representative with Bakken Western Services.

“Anytime you have an oil spill on water, the most important thing is an immediate response,” said Gendreau.

But for some areas of Lake Sakakawea, it could take one to two days to mobilize cleanup activities, Gendreau said.

“It’s pretty treacherous to get anywhere,” he said.

The group proposes to store CCD Chips at key locations around the lake. In the event of a spill, helicopter pilot Monte Myers would fly to the location, pick up the chips and use a specially designed “Ecobucket” that can release up to 700 pounds of the chips at one time on the oil spill.

The chips immediately adhere to oil and contain the spill, which can be cleaned up later with skimmers, suction or nets, or contained with booms.

The group estimates it would take 105 minutes to 125 minutes to respond to a spill on Lake Sakakawea, depending on the location.

Bakken Western Services has been making presentations of their product to industry and other groups.

“We believe it’s not if it happens, it’s when it happens,” Gendreau said.

A moving target

Cleaning up an oil spill on Lake Sakakawea can be particularly challenging when it’s windy and waves reach 5 feet tall or higher, said Roberts, with the North Dakota Department of Health.

“That’s going to play havoc with people trying to put out booms or recover oil or protecting critical habitat,” Roberts said. “From that standpoint, it’s critical you do it right.”

Responding to a spill on the Missouri River would pose a different kind of challenge because the moving water makes it difficult to stay ahead of the spill and prevent it from spreading, Way said.

“Once it gets into something like the Missouri River, it has the ability to move a fairly long distance in a short period,” Way said.

The industry, along with local, state and federal agencies, all have a role to play in the event of a spill, Roberts said.

“If something happens, it’s going to be all hands on deck,” Roberts said.

Companies participating in Sakakawea Area Spill Response:

Bridger Pipeline
Enbridge Pipeline
WPX Energy
Marathon Oil
Whiting Petroleum
Hess Corp.
Slawson Exploration
Continental Resources

Loader used to ‘dismantle the house,’ end New Town standoff without injuries

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Law enforcement used a front-end loader to break into New Town home and end a standoff with an armed man this morning.

New Town Police Chief Art Walgren said used the piece of heavy equipment shorlty before 10 a.m. to  “dismantle the house” to the end the standoff that lasted more than 24 hours.

“The house is only about half of what it was,” Walgren said.

No shots were fired while taking the suspect into custody.

FBI spokesman Kyle Loven identified the man taken into custody as Michael Jason Smith, 32.

Smith faces narcotics charges in Colorado and will likely face additional charges in North Dakota, Loven said.

“Through the use of nonlethal tactics, we were able to effect the surrender of Mr. Smith,” Loven said.

Walgren said Smith was being transported to the Mountrail County jail.

Walgren said law enforcement was still processing the house at 402 9th St. N. in

New Town and streets around the crime scene would likely remain closed until late this afternoon.

Ten to 15 houses were evacuated in the neighborhood after the man barricaded himself inside.

Nearby New Town schools also went into lockdown because of the standoff.

“He refused to give up after numerous attempts to use tear gas,” Walgren said.

Even after the front-end loader was deployed, tear gas was needed to apprehend the suspect.

SWAT teams from Minot and Bismarck worked together to end the standoff.

Walgren said it was unclear if Smith had any connection to the home before the standoff that started after 1 a.m.Wednesday.

Michael Jason Smith’s address is listed on North Dakota court records as Centennial, Colo. He was arrested June 28 in North Dakota in McKenzie County and charged in state district court there with being a felon illegally possessing a weapon, a Class C felony with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He also was charged with two misdemeanor drug possession charges. When he failed to appear for a court hearing, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest in October, according to state court records. McKenzie County borders Mountrail County in the Oil Patch of western North Dakota.