Through NIEHS support, Cliff Whitman Sr. works to make sure that tribal members on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota will be ready to act, saving lives and property, in the event of an emergency.
Whitman is the emergency manager and director for Homeland Security for the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) — a single organization comprised of members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations.
The Fort Berthold Reservation in central North Dakota lies in the heart of the massive Bakken oil fields. Since the introduction of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, North Dakota has vaulted into second place in United States oil production, trailing only Texas.
Preparing for oil transportation emergencies
Approximately 30 percent of North Dakota oil production flows from the reservation. Products from the Bakken fields are transported by truck to storage facilities, for delivery by rail and pipeline across the United States and Canada. One of the major transloading facilities, as such terminals are known, is located just outside the city limits of New Town, a community of nearly 2,000 residents and home to the TAT tribal offices.
With so much oil constantly moving in and out of the site, risks include spills, tank ruptures, derailments, air pollution from heavy truck traffic, pipeline leaks, and in the worst case, a major fire or explosion.
“If there were to be an explosion, it would take out a pretty good part of the city, including our Justice Center, law enforcement, and ambulance services,” said Whitman. The local college, elementary and high schools, hospital, and casino are also nearby.
The nearest fire department is at least an hour away. “So we concentrate our community trainings on awareness, with the stress on evacuation and sheltering in place,” Whitman explained.
The funding pipeline
Whitman’s program has been supported since 2000 by a grantee of the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP). The Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training (MWC) is a multistate effort led by Carol Rice, Ph.D., at the University of Cincinnati.
“The funding has provided Cliff the opportunity to work with local community groups and organizations, and move forward with several aspects of emergency response work and emergency planning,” said Demia Wright, a WTP public health educator.
Whitman works closely with the local hospital, casino, college, and town officials, as well as with personnel from the transloading facility and pipeline companies. With the lure of lucrative earnings in the oil fields, he said one of his biggest challenges is to make sure enough local people are trained and ready to respond to a disaster.
“Many of the people we’ve trained have gone to new jobs or are no longer living in the community,” he noted. “So it’s an ongoing process of retraining people.” From 2010 through August 2017, Whitman expects to have trained nearly 700 workers and community members, through more than 70 classes.
Keeping up to date
Keeping the training curriculum updated is one of Whitman’s important concerns. With consultation from Rice, other MWC members, and area stakeholders, he expects to have a new course ready by this summer, incorporating fresh information about pipeline issues.
In the meantime, Whitman is working with area fracking sites to prepare for the substantial snow melt expected this spring. If retaining ponds built to contain the hazardous byproducts of fracking were to overflow, contaminated water could reach nearby pastures, farm fields, or grazing lands. Fortunately, Whitman added, the overflow would not pose any danger to drinking water supplies.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)