The damage done

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes brace for the next oil boom while still dealing with the devastating effects of the last one

This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal.

It started with rust. In the toilet. On the shower stall. Helen Ricker saw the orange stains and wondered what was causing them. Her water came from a well, from an aquifer that had always been good. So she drank the water anyway. Beneath the ground, the diluted edges of a large groundwater contamination were seeping by in a slow, gravity-fed progression. Little by little, Ricker’s water got worse.pumpjack

The water stained her white sheets when she washed them and turned her white socks orange. Every time she filled the sink to do dishes, the water’s surface shimmered with an iridescent sheen. Residual grease covered her plates long after soap washed away the night’s meal. Then the water started to stink. A sulfurous stench rose from the toilet in the bathroom and cascaded out of her faucets. Ricker stopped drinking her water.

Ricker lives on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation three miles north of the town of Poplar, on the desolate BIA Road 75. Her home lies two miles southwest of the East Poplar oilfields, a large expanse crisscrossed with rutted dirt roads and spotted with blue, yellow and black oil pumps bobbing up and down like plastic drinking birds from a novelty store. The oilfield is not as productive as it used to be. But that soon may change.

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Audio: Fort Peck Tribes beckon the Bakken

The Bakken oil boom has redefined the economy and landscape of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. But not on the nearby Fort Peck Reservation. Despite the nearly 600,000 acres of the reservation leased to oil companies, the boom eludes the poverty-stricken people of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Reporter Kindra McQuillan has more.

Beckoning the Bakken: Will the oil boom reach Montana’s impoverished Fort Peck tribes?

This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal, Missoula Independent, Indian Country Today and Buffalo’s Fire.

In Poplar, Mont., the Bakken boom is tantalizingly close. It’s much closer than the 71 miles that separate this one-stoplight town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation from Williston, N.D, the epicenter of the largest oil play in the lower 48. Bakken wells are just over the Missouri River, the reservation’s southern boundary, and across Big Muddy Creek, its eastern boundary. The rigs are there on the Montana and North Dakota prairies every day pumping to the surface thousands of barrels of oil and riches.

Photos by Austin Smith

Photos by Austin Smith

But the wells are not here. Poplar itself conveys that. The seat of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes remains a reflection of the poverty that’s long pervaded the reservation—a reflection, as some tribal members describe it, of “historical trauma.” Historical but persisting: The unemployment rate among tribal members holds at around 60 percent. On the oil patch near Sidney, Mont., and in western North Dakota, it’s less than 2 percent.

There, the activity of tens of thousands of truckers, roughnecks and flaring natural gas appears in nighttime images from space, a cluster of light suggesting a sprawling metropolis on the northern plains. In Poplar, in March, it’s quiet. Boarded-up homes and businesses line icy streets. There’s no parade of oil-hauling trucks; rez dogs still dare walk the highway.

Nearly three years ago, around the time North Dakota’s monthly oil production hit 10 million barrels for the first time, the people of Poplar were coping with a youth suicide epidemic. Five Poplar Middle School students killed themselves, and 20 more attempted to, during one school year.

The boom isn’t here, but the Bakken is. The reservation sits several thousand feet above what’s thought to be the western edge of the geologic formation, an ancient slab of rock about the size of West Virginia laden with billions of barrels of oil. That reservoir now accounts for more than 10 percent of the country’s total production. To the leaders of the Fort Peck tribes, it promises something more. Continue reading