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An Oil Boom Is Ravaging an Indian Reservation in North Dakota

MHA Nation has collected about $1 billion in oil money since the fracking bonanza took off in 2008, but life for most tribe members has only gotten bleaker since then.

Photos by the author

On the banks of Lake Sakakawea, a 370,000-acre reservoir in the heart of western North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation—home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) tribes—sits a 96-foot yacht.

When MHA Nation inaugurated the boat last summer, it advertised the flashy white vessel as a " dinner and enterta​inment" option for patrons of the nearby 4 Bears Casino & Lodge, a two-decade-old cash cow that's run by the tribe. Usually, though, Island Girl just sits idle. On this frigid November afternoon, like most days, it's propped up by blocks of wood on the empty marina.

It's hard to blame the casino hounds for their lack of interest. When it's six degrees outside—and during the winter months, the average temperature regularly plunges below zero—the thought of spending a night out on the windswept prairie water is chill-inducing. Even the warmer weather has done little to encourage the yacht's use.

For most on the reservation, the boat is more symbolic than practical. It's a daily reminder that when it comes to the vast majority of the tribe's 14,000 membe​rs, tribal authorities have managed to piss away the benefits of the area's unprecedented and ridiculously lucrative oil boom.

Blessed with oil-and-gas-rich shale formations underlying Fort Berthold, the MHA government collects about $25 million in royalties a month. All in all, the tribe has collected about $1 billion in oil ​money since the fracking bonanza took off in 2008.

And yet life for much of MHA Nation is mostly bleak. Poverty, health problems, and drug abuse abound. Average life expectancy hovers below​ 60. Meanwhile, the government's lack of transparency and its well-documented ties to oil and gas interests have left members in deep suspicion.

"The yacht, of course, is the most visible thing," says Theodora Bird Bear, a 63-year-old resident of Mandaree, an impoverished town of 600 on the reservation. "But if the yacht's there, what else is there? We don't know."

Fort Berthold alone is responsible for about a third of North Dakota's oil production, around 330,000 barrels a day. If the reservation were its own state, it would be the seventh-​largest oil producer in the country, just behind Oklahoma.

Some have reaped the boom's benefits. Fewer than half of the tribe's members own oil-rich land and earn royalties from leases negotiated with industry. (A smaller number of these landowners actually collect sizable amounts.) Most members' ability to benefit from the boom basically hinges on how much their government is willing to do for them.

"For some of those that own land, the oil boom has been great," Vance Gillette, a 64-year-old lawyer from New Town, tells me over beers in the casino lounge. "The rank and file don't own land and so of course there's some resentment there."

It's hard to blame them.

Thanks to the tribe's 1936 constitution, MHA government budgets aren't subject to the sorts of disclosure and auditing requirements that are standard among federal, state, county, or municipal bodies. This fact is made all the more staggering by the amount of money the tribal council controls: Last year's budget set aside $72 million in a general fund and $421 million in a loosely d​efined "special projects" fund.

"There was no definition of what those special projects were," says Bird Bear, who also runs a popular Facebook​ ​page that documents the boom's impact on the reservation. "Nobody knows unless you're within the tribal government. The general membership doesn't know how the money is being spent."

The tribal council appropriates some of its money at monthly meetings, which are open to the public. Nevertheless, authorities often make significant spending decisions with little to no fanfare.

For instance, in September, officials broke ground on a $55 million hotel and casino project—a proposed five-story, 400-room development with four restaurants and a water park to be located directly across the street from the existing casino. Gillette says he only learned about this by reading the local paper.

The New Town News, in turn, does not publish all of its stories online. In order to track down the article, I had to call up the editor and ask for him to email me a copy. In other words, if you didn't happen to catch the September 19 print edition of The News or attend the meeting at which the council agreed to appropriate the money, you probably didn't hear about the new hotel.

Gillette shakes his head and takes a drag from his cigarette.

"There's a housing need; there is not a hotel need," Gillette says. "I can see the need for a Super 8 or something like that, but why do you need something like this?"

Inaction is another problem. Critics charge that authorities have ignored the most severe health and environmental troubles unleashed by the oil boom.

One is the sharp uptick in drug abuse. As outsiders began rushing into western North Dakota looking for jobs, they brought methamphe​tamines and heroin into the community. Tribal courts are now dominated by meth-related cases, but Fort Berthold still doesn't have any rehabilitation or treatment centers of its own.

"The meth up there is insane. The heroin up there is insane. They definitely need help," says one local law enforcement official.

After more than five years of frenetic drilling, the environmental footprint is staggering. It's hard to drive more than a few miles on the reservation without seeing evidence of flari​​ng, the ecologically reckless but economically rational practice of burning off excess natural gas that's too expensive to get to market. At night, the fiery hills look like a scaled-back version of Mordor.

To be sure, flaring is common across the oil patch, but Fort Berthold bears the brunt of it. (Forty percent of natural gas drilled on the reservation is burned off into the atmosphere, twice the amount as the rest of North Dakota,  ​according to state regulators.)

It's not just the air. Major questions loom over the community's water supply.

In July, a pipeline operated by the Houston-based company Crestwood Midstream spilled a million gall​ons of brine—a hyper-salinated, metal-infused watery byproduct of fracking—into a ravine that flows into a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, the reservation's primary drinking water source. As of today, no fines have been assessed.

VICE has learned that's because the tribe's former chairman Tex Hall—who himself owns a comp​any that drills on the reservation and once testified in​ Congress against new frackin​g regulations—discouraged fellow officials from pursuing punitive action.

At this month's council meeting, I caught up with the MHA's environmental chief, Edmund Baker. He says that after the spill, Hall ignored his requests to obtain soil samples from the affected area.

"That's one of the major problems, the lack of deterrence," Baker says. "What kind of message does that send?"

Indeed, in the absence of a crackdown, the pipeline went on to spill twice more in the following months. In August, it spilled about 126,000 gallons. Then in October, the pipeline leaked another 6,300 gallons.

After losing his bid for re-election, Tex Hall left office earlier this month. Since the change in leadership, the tribe has worked with a third-party contractor—WH Pacific—to collect water and soil samples from the spill sites.

When Sierra Geraci, a representative from WH Pacific, finally briefed officials at the tribe's monthly council meeting, she revealed an unnerving amount of uncertainty: "We still don't know the full extent of the impact on the soils and surface water, the occurrence of groundwater contamination, the distance that contaminates have migrated towards the lake, the presence of radionu​clides in the drainage system, or the presence of metals in the creek sediments," she said.

Those samples are currently being analyzed at an EPA-certified laboratory. In the meantime, residents continue to use the water.

The recent change in leadership could usher in a new era on the reservation.

Earlier this month, MHA voters elected Mark Fox as their new chairman. On the campaign trail, Fox floated the possibility of "slowing" down the oil boom. That rhetoric alone was enough to scare producers, who vente​d their fears to state regulators.

It remains to be seen just how scared they should be.

There are some signs, though, that the swap in leadership will translate into more accountability. For instance, at the first council meeting under Fox's rein, the tribe finally agreed to assess a potential fine against Crestwood. And while it may seem trivial, MHA Nation officials broadcast the entirety of that council meeting on the radio—the first time that's happened in recent memory.

Others are skeptical that the new leadership will substantially alter the status quo.   Fox, after all, served as the tribal government's tax director for the last four years.

"There's a big difference between campaigning and when you're actually in the driver's seat, so to speak," says Marilyn Hudson, a 78-year-old resident of Parshall who also runs the tribe's museum in New Town.

"I really never understood what this thing was about slowing down the oil boom. How would you do it? Would it be step one, two, three, four?" Hudson continues. "The oil industry and its relationship to landowners is probably just too big for one person to slow it down."

If the new leadership can't slow down drilling, then perhaps it can better distribute the wealth generated by the boom. Observers say the new council under Fox may proceed with some type of formalized "per capita" or "per cap" program—the term used for payments that some tribes dole out to their members. (Hall's government took some initial steps toward this.)

Setting up such a program could run into tax obstacles, though, according to Gillette.

"If it's general welfare—medical issues, for instance—then the tribe can justify it. But if it's just a $10,000 check, it gets trickier," says Gillette. "If they start making big payments, the IRS will come knocking."

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Gillette what he thinks life will be like on Fort Berthold when the boom finally ends. Nobody quite knows when that time will come.

"I'll probably move, I don't know," he says with a laugh, as I struggle to gauge his sincerity. "The ones with money, they're out of here, in Bismarck, in San Francisco, in Arizona. If I had the big bucks, I'd probably be out of here, too."​

Cole Stangler is a DC-based journalist covering labor and environmental issues whose. His work has appeared in In These Times, the Nation, and the New Republic.Follow him on ​Twitter.