Nicholas Kusnetz writes, "Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally. State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades. Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess."
Under North Dakota regulations, Kusnetz notes, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety "can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they seldom do: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years." Mark Bohrer, who oversees spill reports for the state Department of Mineral Resources, which regulates drilling, told Kusnetz that the number of spills is "acceptable given the pace of drilling and that he sees little risk of long-term damage." Oil companies are drilling upwards of 200 wells each month in northwestern North Dakota, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey, and the state now ranks second in production. The work has reinvigorated North Dakota's economy; unemployment sits at 3 percent, reversing a population decline that began in the mid-1980s, when the last oil boom went bust.