Farmer Daryl Peterson stands in his field in Antler, North Dakota, on a site where the soil has been evacuated because of a saltwater spill — a byproduct of oil production. Photo: Daryl Peterson

By Likhitha Butchireddygari
11 August 2018

(NBC News) – Daryl Peterson's farm has been in his family for as long as he's been alive. His father passed down the 2,500-acre spread, just a few miles from the Canadian border in Antler, North Dakota, nearly 50 years ago. He and his brother Larry have been farming it ever since. But now, in his 70s, Peterson finds himself forced to protect his family's legacy.

For the past two decades, Peterson and his wife Christine have been dealing with the spillage of saltwater — a byproduct of oil production — on their land, which grows peas, soybeans and various types of grain. Almost 40 years ago, they signed a contract with an oil company "land man" who came to their house and said there might be oil on their land.

In 1997, two spills covered dozens of acres with more than 50,000 gallons of saltwater. A decade later, another 21,000 gallons of saltwater spilled. And since then, though their land never produced much oil or oil revenue, the Petersons say they have seen another 10 spills.

They claim these spills were never properly cleaned up. Peterson says it's become his "life's mission" to get some justice for his land, so he and his wife are suing the oil company, Petro Harvester.

"It's incumbent on me to protect my property to the best of my ability for myself and my family," Peterson said. "Enough is enough."

Over the past decade, the biggest in a series of oil booms has transformed North Dakota, reinvigorating an economy that was largely known for its agricultural output. With an influx of new workers and jobs, North Dakota has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment and highest labor force participation rates in the country. But this prosperity has not come without consequence.

Oil production has brought with it an ecological problem that threatens farms that have been in the same families for generations. A thousand miles from the nearest ocean, the fertile black earth of North Dakota is being destroyed by saltwater, which is brought from beneath the surface by oil and gas drilling. Landowners, like the Petersons, have to deal with the mess.

North Dakota landowners who spoke with NBC raised concerns about the reporting and cleanup of saltwater or "brine" spills. They cited late reporting or nonexistent reporting of spills, a failure to return their land to the original condition, as the state requires, and a lack of compensation for lost farming revenue. [more]

Salting the earth: North Dakota farmers struggle with a toxic byproduct of the oil boom

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