Jacki Schilke is a western North Dakota rancher who has gotten a lot of attention from left-wing environmental activists and media publications. Starting last year, Schilke began claiming that oil development around her property was killing her cattle and pets. I wrote about one of the YouTube videos she put out last November.
I did some investigating on that video, and found out from Lynn Helms, Director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources, that they were aware of Schilke’s claims and were attempting to investigate but she wouldn’t allow it at the time. “I recognize the voice on the video as an individual who has refused to allow the Department of Health access to medical records or to collect samples of water and air,” Helms told me in an email.
It seems that this is a theme with Schilke. The Dickinson Press has published a profile of Schilke and her environmental claims and at first blush it seems pretty convincing:
WILLISTON, N.D. – Jacki Schilke likes to say her black angus cattle live in harmony with the cats and dogs on her rural Williston ranch.
But recently, Schilke’s ranch has not been in harmony with oil development expanding around her 160 acres.
Five cows, one bull, two dogs and as many as two dozen farm cats have died in the past two years, and Schilke worries the dozens of oil wells within three miles of her ranch could be to blame.
Word of the health problems at Schilke’s ranch has gotten the attention of environmentalists as well as other ranchers trying to co-exist in western North Dakota’s new landscape. …
Schilke said she didn’t start out looking to point fingers at the oil industry. The 54-year-old spent seven years working in exploratory drilling in the 1980s, and her husband, Steve, now works in the oil industry.
“I have never been against the oil field,” Schilke said. “It was my bread and butter.”
But as oil activity increased around the home they’ve lived in since 2007, Schilke and her husband began having their own health problems and noticing the decline of their animals’ health.
They had four cattle that lost the ends of their tails before they either died or were shot by her husband to end their suffering.
“It’s the most horrible thing to watch in your life,” Schilke said. “You beat your brain trying to figure it out. It’s devastating.”
Ok, so what evidence do we have that Schilke’s claims are true? Almost nothing other than her own testimony, since she won’t provide any:
Keller said she offered to assist Schilke last year with testing but didn’t receive a response.
“If we’ve got something like that going on … for the sake of the neighbors, I’d really like to know if there are some legitimate contamination issues,” said Keller, adding that the offer still stands.
Schilke said she doesn’t recall hearing from Keller or anyone from the state veterinarian’s office.
But she added that she would not consider working with the state veterinarian’s office or a similar office from an oil-producing state because she doesn’t believe she’d get objective information.
Instead, Schilke said she has worked with an independent environmental consultant from Texas and veterinarians at Cornell University and Iowa State University. Autopsies of two cats that became ill and died ruled they died of asphyxiation, Schilke said.
Schilke said she attempted to have autopsies performed on her cattle, but local veterinarians didn’t have time to promptly collect the necessary samples. Schilke said she has had hair and blood testing on her cattle.
However, she declined to provide a copy of the test results, autopsy reports or veterinary records because she has been advised by an attorney not to share that information because it could be important to a future legal case.
So, Schilke won’t work with state officials on this matter, choosing instead to work only with sources sympathetic to her environmental cause.
And as an update from last yet, it appears as though Schilke is now allowing the Department of Health to investigate the matter, but the problem is they can’t find anything wrong with the environment where Schilke is living:
The North Dakota Department of Health, the Oil and Gas Division of the Department of Mineral Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency have investigated Schilke’s concerns and continue to do more testing.
“We’re having a hard time connecting the issues she’s having with her livestock with any environmental problem,” said Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the Department of Health’s Division of Water Quality. “That’s not to say there isn’t one, we just haven’t been able to find it.”
Perhaps it’s time for a different tact in this investigation. Someone ought to look into whether or not Schilke is harming her own animals as a part of her environmental activism. Because that’s my guess.
What’s truly irksome about this fraud – because that’s what I believe it to be – is that it’s a distraction from a more level-headed debate we should be having about the impact of oil development in western, ND. That part of the state is going through a major phase of industrialization, and not everyone participating in it is as scrupulous in terms exercising good environmental practices as they should be. We need to be on guard against that sort of behavior.
But wild-eyed stories about dead animals and human suffering caused by all development, offered with almost no evidence and without similar problems occurring for any of the other hundreds of thousands of people who live in the oil patch, doesn’t help.