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MHA Nation continues legal fight over oil wells near Lake Sakakawea

A drilling rig operates in April at a Slawson Exploration well pad near Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Drilling is now complete with hydraulic fracturing expected to begin in October. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior as the tribe continues to challenge oil wells that tribal leaders say were drilled too close to Lake Sakakawea.

The tribe is exhausting its appeals after the Bureau of Land Management approved oil wells that are closer to the lake than tribal regulations allow, MHA Chairman Mark Fox said in an interview on Wednesday.

"We're doing our best to battle and protect our land and our reservation," said Fox, who is running for a second term as chairman. "We have a lot to protect."

Slawson Exploration Co. has completed drilling 12 oil wells near the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea near New Town and has plans to begin hydraulic fracturing on Oct. 1, said Eric Sundberg, the company's vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs.

The court complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, argues the well pad threatens Lake Sakakawea, the tribe's primary source of drinking water and a critical natural, cultural and recreational resource.

MHA Nation has filed previous challenges over the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the drilling permits. The tribe requires oil wells to be drilled at least 1,000 feet from Lake Sakakawea to protect the lake from a potential spill. Tribal regulations also require oil companies to receive a variance for wells within a half-mile of the lakeshore.

Slawson's well pad, known as the Torpedo Federal pad, was originally sited for 600 feet from the lake but was pushed back to about 800 feet from the lakeshore during the regulatory review, Sundberg said. The wells are more than 1,000 feet from the lake, he said. A U.S. Air Force missile cable prevented the pad from being located farther north, Sundberg said.

The complaint seeks a federal judge to vacate a decision by the Department of Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals that affirmed the federal government's approval of the drilling permits.

Fox said the tribe's concern is the "continued defiance" of tribal law by some oil and gas operators at Fort Berthold.

Slawson has previously argued in court records that tribal policies don't apply to this well pad because the wells are on private land and the company is developing non-Indian oil and gas minerals underneath Lake Sakakawea. The company is not named in the lawsuit.

The MHA Nation maintains that its laws should apply to all oil development within the boundaries of Fort Berthold.

"If there's a contamination or impact to occur, it's not going to just gravitate to only fee lands or only fee properties. We're all going to be impacted one way or another," Fox said.

The Department of Interior has not yet responded to the complaint.

The legal challenge has not had an impact on Slawson's operations.

Sundberg said the company has worked to minimize impacts of the drilling operation, which is adjacent to a popular boat ramp and recreation area. The site is surrounded by a sound-barrier wall.

When the wells begin producing, the oil, natural gas and produced water will be transported by pipeline, Sundberg said. Natural gas will be processed at the Andeavor Robinson Lake plant. Natural gas that is not captured will be flared at a location about a mile north of the well pad, said Sundberg, adding that there will be an emergency flare at the well pad near the lake during completion operations.

The tribe continues to support and promote fossil fuel development, according to Fox. More than 258,000 barrels of oil per day were produced from Fort Berthold in June, accounting for about one-fifth of north Dakota's production.

"We need responsible development. That's what we continue to reassert," Fox said.