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Forum editorial: Not your father's road dust

There’s nothing new about road dust in dry western North Dakota. It’s been a fact of rural life since before Dakota Territory was divided into North Dakota and South Dakota. But what is new in North Dakota’s oil country is that road dust, once an occasional nuisance, has evolved into a 24/7 phenomenon that is affecting crops, livestock and probably the health of farm and ranch families.

“Probably” is the operative word because thus far there are no credible assessments of the health effects of prolonged exposure to higher levels of dust in the air, which is being caused primarily by heavy truck traffic associated with oil and gas development. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the constant pall of dust stunts crops and sickens (sometimes kills) livestock. Some ranchers have a name for the malady affecting their cattle: dust pneumonia.

And there is no question the quality of life – the quality of the air – has been tainted by clouds of road dust stirred up by night-and-day oilfield truck traffic.

Unlike other dust-producing industries – coal mines, saw mills, grain elevators, factories – there are no effective standards or requirements for controlling what could be toxic dust that is generated by oilfield activity.

Oil firms, trucking companies and state and local agencies are trying to reduce the dust plague. Various techniques have been applied to gravel and scoria roads that were not designed for the volume and weight of traffic pounding over them. Results are not impressive. The only way to reduce dust is to reduce truck traffic, and that is not about to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, enlightened public policy would be assessing the impacts, if any, that road dust concentrations are visiting on plants, animals and human beings in oil country. Getting ahead of what could be an intractable public health problem is smarter than reacting to it after the damage is done.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.