Port: 2 ND cities refuse to participate in COVID-19 sewage study for ideological reasons

Two North Dakota communities are refusing to participate in a study of sewage intended to collect data on the spread of COVID-19.


MINOT, N.D. — We can learn a lot from poop.

It may surprise you, but sewage from our communities is used to collect data, which, in turn, drives public policy decisions.

Often in unexpected ways.

In western North Dakota, when the boom in oil development drove a similar boom in population, it was difficult for community leaders to measure just how much their communities were growing. They turned to measuring sewer volume , which was both quicker, and in some ways, more accurate than census surveys.

So it makes sense that researchers want to sample sewage as a way to measure the spread of the COVID-19 virus.


But, in yet another display of just how stupidly political our response to the pandemic has become, some of North Dakota's communities are refusing to participate.

The state Emergency Commission, with approval from Legislature's Budget Section Committee, approved spending $675,000 of North Dakota's share of federal CARES Act funding on a sewage study. So far, 21 cities, representing some 60% of the state's population, are participating.

Six cities, however, have declined. Four of them — Beulah, Mayville, Rugby, and Washburn — cited resources as an obstacle. Specifically, human resources. They don't have the people available to do the job.

That's understandable.

What's less understandable are two communities, the cities of Stanley and Tioga, refusing to participate seemingly for ideological reasons.

"So you find a lot of COVID — what, are you going to want to sample streets next, up sewer mains and streets? Could be. I don't know," Tioga city commissioner Tim Sundhagen told the Bismarck Tribune , citing concerns that high levels of COVID-19 in the community's waste could prompt quarantines.

"I didn't think they were going to come and want to test the water in the first place," he said. "And then do they find a hot street, a really hot street? Are they going to want us to block it off? Are you going to let nobody in or out?"

"We are afforded certain liberties in this country. One of them isn't necessarily health. There's nothing in the Bills of Rights or the Constitution I see about where you're afforded the government to keep you healthy," he continued.


Stanley Mayor Gary Weisenberger seems similarly distrustful, telling the Tribune "the city decided not to do it and that's the end of the story."

These city leaders — Tioga, certainly, and probably Stanley, too — are refusing to allow the collection of data that could help us fight the virus and get past the restrictions and mandates we've put in place during the pandemic because they assume that data will be used in some nefarious plot to oppress us.

I tend to view skepticism of government as a healthy thing, but there's skepticism, and then there is paranoia.

One is healthy; the other not so much.

It is baffling to me why anyone would be opposed to collecting data. We can, and should, have a robust debate about what we do with that data, but shouldn't we want as much good information as we can reasonably collect to inform that debate?

Apparently not, in the eyes of some.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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