Ambulance services hurting in the Oil Patch

Matt Miller, a paramedic with the Dickinson Ambulance Service, checks an oxygen tank on Thursday, July 18, 2013. The 21-year-old was transferred from Sisseton, S.D., because of staffing concerns in Dickinson. Dustin Monke / Forum News Service

PARSHALL, N.D. – Ambulance volunteers in western North Dakota are so stressed they can’t leave for a weekend because there’s no one to cover for them, said the director of an Oil Patch ambulance service.

Four southwestern North Dakota ambulance services formed a nonprofit group and are seeking grant funding to hire part-time staff to fill in scheduling gaps.

“The volunteers are so active and putting in so much they really need some relief,” said Lynn Hartman, administrative director for Dickinson Area Ambulance.

Emergency services in the Oil Patch were highlighted Thursday during a meeting of the Vision West Consortium in Parshall. Community leaders of 19 western North Dakota counties are working together to address challenges that come with rapid growth.

Ambulance calls have increased nearly 60 percent since 2006 in oil-impacted areas, compared with 5 percent in the rest of the state, said Tom Nehring, director of the Division of Emergency Medical Services & Trauma for the North Dakota Department of Health.

Of the 44 ambulance services in oil-producing counties, three have paid staff and the rest have volunteers or have some partially paid staff, Nehring said.

“We’re putting a huge burden on the backs of the volunteers,” said Nehring, adding that employers are becoming reluctant to allow staff to be on call.

Dickinson’s ambulance service, which has paid staff, teamed up with volunteer departments of New England, Mott and Regent to form the nonprofit Rural EMS Assistance Inc., a pilot project to address staffing shortages.

The North Dakota Department of Health supports the public-private partnership, Nehring said.

“This is one we’re watching to see if we can use and replicate this across the state,” he said.

The North Dakota Legislature recently approved $7.34 million to support rural emergency medical services across the state, $14.5 million for fire protection districts across the state and $1 million for local public health units.

Another $7 million is available in energy impact grants for emergency services. But the Board of University and School Lands is reluctant to use that one-time money for staffing, which is the biggest concern for emergency services, Nehring said.

In the 2012 energy impact grant round, $2 million was available for emergency services and communities submitted $44 million in requests, Nehring said.

Oil well near Parshall is under control

PARSHALL, N.D. – Crews regained control of an oil well near Parshall about 5 a.m. today after the well stopped flowing, said the state Department of Mineral Resources.

The cleanup process is ongoing, said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the department.

Officials with the Department of Mineral Resources will monitor the cleanup effort and require a follow-up spill report within 10 days after the cleanup is complete, Ritter said.

Initial cleanup efforts are focusing on the field north of the well, the area most heavily affected by mist of oil that sprayed from the well starting Wednesday evening, said Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the North Department of Health.

Crews also are removing oil from the well pad, Roberts said. The waste will be transported to a special oilfield waste landfill near Sawyer, Roberts said.

Lake Sakakwea, less than a mile south of the well, was not threatened, Roberts said.

A workover rig crew lost control of the well Wednesday evening after equipment malfunctioned, a spokesman for Slawson Exploration said. A specialized crew from Houston flew to North Dakota to regain control of the well.

UPDATED: Oil well near Parshall continues to spray mist of oil, but doesn’t threaten Lake Sakakawea

A mist of oil sprays from an oil well near Parshall, N.D., Dec. 13, 2012, after an equipment malfunction occurred. A specialized crew flew from Texas to get control of the well. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

PARSHALL, N.D. – An oil well that began to malfunction Wednesday evening continues to spray a mist of oil into the air but is expected to be contained Friday morning, an official at the scene says.

The mist appeared to be contained shortly after 3 p.m. today. Crews used the bucket of a backhoe to cover the mist and keep it from blowing up into the air, said Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health.

But the risk of a static spark that could start a fire was too high, so crews removed the equipment about 4 p.m. and the mist continues to spray to the north, Roberts said.

“One spark would have been one way too many,” he said.

About 6 p.m. today, crews were closing down for the day because it was getting too dark, Roberts said. They will resume working Friday morning, he said.

The well is not causing any danger to public health and there was no need for evacuations, Roberts said.

Kyle Waliezer, Rockies area superintendent for Slawson Exploration Co., said a crew was working on the well about nine miles west of Parshall between 6 and 7 p.m. Wednesday when an equipment malfunction occurred.

The malfunction, which is still under investigation, caused the workers to lose control of the well, Waliezer said.

A specialized team from Houston flew to North Dakota Wednesday night to get control of the well, but a brownish mist, occasionally surging higher than the top of the service rig, continues to spray into the air. They will continue their work on Friday.

Lake Sakakawea, less than one mile to the south of the well, was not in danger of being affected, Roberts said.

The well is spraying oil, gas and water containing brine, Roberts said. The mist drifted more than 2,000 feet to the southwest of the well before the wind shifted, he said. The mist is now spraying to the north and Roberts estimates it has affected an area of about 1,500 feet.

Cleanup crews would not begin working until the well was contained, Roberts said.

No one was injured in the incident, Waliezer said.

Slawson hired a firm to monitor gas levels in the area to ensure the safety of nearby residents, Waliezer said.

Workers constructed dikes around the well site to contain the spill, Roberts said.

“They’ve done an excellent job of trying to make sure they’re safe and contained,” he said.

Prior to the incident, the well had been in production, but a workover rig, or service rig, was brought in to clean out sand and improve production, Waliezer said.

The state Department of Mineral Resources and other agencies also are on the scene investigating.

A safety officer from the Three Affiliated Tribes energy division also was monitoring the well, which lies within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Energy company donates to housing fund

BISMARCK — WPX Energy is making a $100,000 contribution to help build affordable housing on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple and representatives from WPX Energy announced the contribution to the North Dakota Housing Incentive Fund on Tuesday.

WPX Energy’s contribution was designated for use on the Fort Berthold Reservation, with half of the contribution targeted specifically for The Highlands of Parshall, a large development that will provide rental units near a school and playground for lower-income households.

Housing Incentive Fund contributions can be targeted to a specific project or designated for general use in a community or region.

Individuals, businesses and financial institutions that give to the fund receive a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit.

Hunting rifle used in New Town shootings

BISMARCK – A hunting rifle was used in the homicides that killed a New Town grandmother and three children, according to autopsy reports.

Documents from the State Forensic Medical Examiner’s Office state that Martha Johnson, 64, and her grandson Ben Schuster, 13, died from a gunshot wounds to the head from a .25-06 rifle.

Julia Schuster, 10, died from a gunshot wound to the chest and Luke Schuster, 6, suffered a gunshot wound to the neck, according to the report.

The injuries occurred about 3 p.m. Nov. 18 at Johnson’s home at 301 6th St. N. in New Town.

New Town Police Chief Arthur Walgren said the victims had no vital signs when first-responders arrived on scene shortly after the 911 call came in at 3:17 p.m.

Christian Schuster, 12, called 911 after he survived by playing dead, authorities have said.

Kalcie Eagle, 21, the man the FBI has labeled a person of interest, died from self-inflicted cutting wounds to the neck, according to the Medical Examiner’s report. The time of injury was 7:10 p.m. Nov. 18 in the area of First Avenue Southwest in Parshall, the report said.

Walgren said the rifle did not belong to Eagle, but may have belonged to a family member.

Local authorities initially had jurisdiction over the case, but the FBI is now handling it because Eagle is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Walgren said. New Town lies within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Although the FBI has not said Eagle is the suspected shooter, Walgren said authorities believe all suspects are accounted for.

“We believe that he was the actor,” Walgren said.

The 25-06 is a small-caliber hunting rifle that is somewhat uncommon, Walgren said.

“I don’t know a lot of people who own those types of guns,” Walgren said.

Johnson’s funeral was held Monday in New Town. Services for the Schuster children are scheduled for Thursday in Warsaw, N.D., where the children lived before moving in with their grandparents.

Shooting deaths rattle residents of New Town, Parshall

Police tape was the only remnant Monday afternoon in downtown Parshall, N.D., where an adult male reportedly killed himself Sunday evening. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

By Amy Dalrymple and Stephen J. Lee
Forum Communications

NEW TOWN, N.D. – The 911 call came at 3:17 p.m. Sunday from a young boy who told Mountrail County dispatchers that a man had come into his home and shot his family.

The boy hung up before dispatchers could get more information, but the call was traced to  301 6th St. N. in New Town. There authorities found four victims, a woman and three of her grandchildren, identified by the Mountrail County Sheriff’s Office as Martha Johnson, 64, Ben Schuster, 13, Julia Schuster, 10 and Luke Schuster, 6.

Neighbors said the 12-year-old boy who called 911,  also Johnson’s grandchild,  survived by playing dead, which New Town Police Chief Arthur Walgren confirmed.

About 7 p.m. Sunday, law enforcement learned a man had made statements about the crime. While investigators were questioning him in Parshall, about 17 miles east of New Town, he killed himself with a knife, said Sheriff Ken Halvorson.

Johnson was caring for five grandchildren, according to friends and neighbors. The fifth grandchild was not home at the time, Walgren said. Her husband, Harley, also was not home at the time.

Police were no longer on the scene Monday morning of the house where a grandmother and three children were shot and killed Sunday afternoon. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

The FBI, aided by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is leading the investigation with Mountrail County Sheriff Ken Halvorson, FBI spokesman Kyle Loven, said.

The FBI has taken the lead largely because New Town and Parshall are on an Indian reservation, Loven said.

“Right now we are the lead agency, working in concert with the BCI and the BIA,” Loven  said. “It really is a joint investigation.”

Any serious crime on an Indian reservation typically can involve the FBI’s jurisdiction, he said.

The suspect was an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes,  the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara,  that live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Authorities did not release the name of the suspect, but several sources including law enforcement and tribal members confirmed he’s the son of a former tribal council member.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, expressed condolences Monday night for the family of former tribal council member Scott Eagle during a prayer service and call to action.

Walgren said he doesn’t believe there is any connection between the suspect and Johnson, other than he may have been a casual acquaintance.

The shooting left residents of both towns shaken.

Some New Town residents left town after reports of the shootings and many offices were closed Monday, Walgren said. A woman who lives across the street from the Johnsons was loading clothes into her car Monday and declined to comment.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of people uneasy about it,” Walgren said.

New Town Superintendent Marc Bluestone said he made the decision to call off classes about 9 p.m. Sunday because he hadn’t received confirmation from police that there was no longer a safety risk.

Classes will resume today and counselors, social workers and clergy will be available to assist students and staff. Today is the last day of class before Thanksgiving break.

All five of Johnson’s grandchildren were enrolled in the district, ranging in age from first through eighth grades, Bluestone said. They began attending school in New Town in late September, Bluestone said. They previously attended school in Minto.

Bluestone, who has worked for the district since 1989, said the district has dealt with deaths due to accidents and illnesses before, but never homicide deaths.

“The thought that is troublesome to me is that you don’t hear about things like this is small town North Dakota,” Bluestone said. “It’s really a shock to everyone when it’s your safe little town. It’s very scary for all of us.”

Middle School Principal Andrew DeCoteau said he’s taken phone calls from students, including one girl who was crying, about the death of their classmate, whom police identified as Ben.

“They were pretty shaken on the phone,” DeCoteau said. “A lot of kids were just getting to know him. All of the teachers got along with him real well.”

The suspect also is a longtime community member and has family members who attend school and work for the district, Bluestone said.

In Parshall, residents also were concerned for their safety because they didn’t know what was going on, said resident Marilyn Hudson.

“There was a great deal of fear,” Hudson said.

Parshall Mayor Richard Bolkan said 30 to 40 law enforcement vehicles had blocked off about three blocks of downtown Sunday night when he drove by to check out what was going on. When he came to work at 5 a.m. Monday, the police vehicles were gone, he said.

“I myself am trying to figure out what happened,” Bolkan said.

Hudson, who knew Johnson well, said the values of safety and community closeness are now gone.

“The innocence of the small town life is gone or it’s being tested right now,” Hudson said. “That’s really tragic for us. We won’t be the same again.”

New Town, site of the tribal headquarters, is about 60 miles southwest of Minot near the heart of North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom.

Kenneth Hall, a tribal representative, called for a “Prayer Service & Call to Action” on Monday evening in the New Town community center. Many residents, tribal officials and law enforcement attended.

Chairman Hall said he was glad to see a large turnout for the event.

“It’s wonderful to see the community of New Town come together like this,” Hall said.

Kenneth Hall, North Segment Tribal Business Council Representative for the Three Affiliated Tribes, greets residents and law enforcement who attended a prayer service and call to action Monday following the shooting deaths of a grandmother and three children and the suicide of an adult male. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications