STANLEY, N.D. — Alongside more than 1,400 oil wells in Mountrail County are dozens of nuclear missiles, loaded, primed and ready to fire.
The first produce more than 6 million barrels of oil a month and the second is the Pentagon’s deterrent to a hostile attack against the United States.
The sprawl of wells and drilling rigs puts oil-related activity and the U.S. Air Force in tighter quarters than ever before in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile history, which dates back to the Cold War era of the ’50s and ’60s.
Other than wire fencing around them, the missile sites are unremarkable. It’s likely people have stopped noticing them or are ignorant that so powerful an arsenal is even out there.
Like the oil wells, everything important is under the surface.
The nuclear warheads are the LGM-30G Minuteman III series, with a range of up to 8,000 miles at 15,000 mph. Each carries an explosive yield of 170 kilotons of TNT that can be delivered anywhere in range within 30 minutes, with tens of times the destructive force of the atomic bombs dropped in World War II.
One-third of the 150 missiles in North Dakota are in the Bakken oil field. All of them are under the command of the Minot Air Force Base 91st Missile Wing.
Col. Robert Vercher commands the missile wing. He said the missiles are spread across an 8,500-square-mile area equivalent to the state of New Jersey, but most are located in the bull’s-eye of the oil boom, somewhere down a gravel road or two-lane highway.
Quarters are tightest out on the roads and highways, traveled by hundreds, if not thousands, of semi trucks a day. There’s also development nudging up against the missile sites, for which the Air Force has only a relatively small easement.
It makes for some interesting situations, but nothing that training and communication with others hasn’t solved, Vercher said.
“We used to be the biggest vehicles on the road, minus the farm equipment,” he said. Air Force semi truck drivers make multiple trips to replace and maintain the missiles.
Today, that same road can be the route to an oil well, pounded by thousands of semi truck trips hauling hydraulic fracture fluids, or crude to a railroad uptake or pipeline.
“We used to worry seasonally (spring and harvest) and now we have added extra training for all our drivers,” Vercher said.
He said roads are wide enough and to his knowledge, there has never been a standdown between the military and a convoy of oil trucks.
“There’s enough room,” he said. “We’ve not stopped a single vehicle.”
The missiles are 100 feet deep, encased in concrete.
The oil wells are 10,000 feet deep and even the intensely pressurized hydraulic fracturing of them — 20 frack stages on each of more than 1,000 wells underneath Mountrail County — doesn’t affect the missile stability, Vercher said.
The Air Force has rights to an access road to the missile site. Each missile site is located on 0.9 acres of land with a 1,200-foot easement that forms a circle from a point dead center.
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For decades, encroachment was not an issue. Farming within the easement is allowed, but today it takes more vigilance to ensure that a parking lot, pipeline or electric line hasn’t been staked out in the easement, a problem that’s magnified because original land ownership has changed and new owners may be unaware of the easement boundaries.
“We visit the sites multiple times in a week and there are cameras. We are very aware even if a car drives up,” Vercher said.
The Air Force, through its installation and asset team, deals with 10 to 15 more cases of potential encroachment annually than it did before the oil boom and has seven open cases now and closed eight last year, Vercher said.
Vercher said that includes such things as a truck parking lot or rail track coming onto the easement.
“We want to help the developer avoid the expense to relocate,” Vercher said.
In October, the Air Force sent a memo to the Mountrail County Commission outlining its safety easements for a rocket fuel-fired launch or a fire —1,570 feet and a minimum of 2,500 feet respectively.
County planning director Don Longmuir said the zoning board adopted those standards, though on a case-by- case basis depending on the proposed use. The recorded 1,200 feet easement is a minimum.
“It hasn’t been a problem in the past,” Longmuir said. When encroachment into the expanded safety easement looks likely, “The planning and zoning board can determine that’s not the best use of the land and require that they locate somewhere else,” he said.
The city of Stanley has come up against the underground communication cable that connects the missile sites, a high-tech link that’s protected by an air seal for instant alert to penetration.
The cable is buried along the south side of the city, bordering property that was recently annexed for development of an enormous commercial plaza. The cable also runs partly through the city limits.
“It has affected us on street construction, but it’s nothing that we can’t engineer around,” said city coordinator Ward Heidbreder. “We’ve had to narrow some streets up and get creative.”
The cable surface easement is 16.5 feet and is a no-build, no-tree zone.
Heidbreder said that the Air Force is responsive to call-before-dig notifications.
“They’re diligent and really easy to work with,” Heidbreder said.
However, it is the military.
Stanley Mayor Mike Hynek said when various development plans have had to be adjusted for the easement, asking to have the cable moved is really not an option.
“Their response is, ‘Why would you even ask?’” he said.