During the past few centuries, the US federal government has consistently abused North American indigenous groups through the seizure of land and resources as well as through social and political discrimination. These practices were born out of a widespread belief known as “Manifest Destiny,” which held that European settlers were meant to expand across the North American content, replacing native culture with their own. Settler groups often advanced this agenda through the massacres of entire tribes and settlements along with other hallmarks of genocide.
This sordid history continues today as Native American tribes remain the target of corporate pillaging and state-sponsored murder, leading to broken communities and poverty driven by government-sponsored exploitation. Oil and gas companies have become a major part of this systemic injustice in recent years, gaining access to native land for drilling with the government’s help and often against the tribe’s wishes. The Fort Berthold reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, is one area where tribes in recent years have accused the government of allowing their people to be cheated by energy companies. According to lawsuits filed in the last few years, the swindle deprived the tribe of more than $1 billion and the influx of oil workers has brought a surge in drug use and crime to the reservation and its surrounding areas.
In addition to the social cost, the drilling has taken a major environmental toll. The US government has approved over 1,700 oil and gas leases on the reservation, with 1,000 total wells expected to be drilled in the coming years. However, with around 300 wells currently, the environmental damage has already begun to mount. Since 2009, there have been about 70 reports of oil-related pollution as well as wildfires caused by fracking wells, which have burned thousands of acres. Just yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) slapped a North Dakota fracking company with a multi-million dollar fine for polluting the reservation’s air.
Slawson Exploration Company, the largest oil producer in the Midwest, has around 170 oil and gas wells on the reservation, all of which employ hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in order to gain access to the Bakken oil shale. The EPA has found that Slawson failed to adequately design, operate, and maintain vapor control systems on its well equipment, leading to air contamination. The smog produced by these haphazard wells can lead to an increase in the incidence of respiratory illness and exacerbates long-term respiratory conditions such as asthma. For their negligence, the EPA charged the company with a $2.1 million fine and forced the company to commit to spend $4.1 million on system upgrades as well as an additional $2 million on environmental mitigation projects. This settlement between the EPA and Slawson is said to be only one of several enforcement actions targeting oil/gas-related air pollution currently underway in North Dakota.
Slawson’s negligence in fitting its wells with the systems necessary to prevent and mitigate pollution is yet another example of how fossil fuel companies consistently fail to show concern for the long-ranging effects of the contamination they cause. Nearby the Fort Berthold reservation, protests have raged for months over the Dakota Access pipeline, which seeks to route a massive pipeline through the Missouri river, a source of drinking water for millions. The company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, have been responsible for leaking more than 18,800 barrels of oil since 2005. Contamination of the river and the environment is guaranteed if the pipeline is completed and EPA fines will likely do little to lessen the damage, which would likely be irreparable.
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