Along the wide-open expanses and rolling prairie of western North Dakota surrounding the state's booming oil patch, all sorts of bizarre litter can be found clogging the once picturesque roadside: Derelict hardhats, single boots, buckets, pallets, pieces of machinery, shredded semi tires, oily clothing, cigarette butts.
The worst? Plastic jugs of urine pitched out windows as scores of truckers pass through oil country.
Litter has become an escalating problem as the rush to tap vast caches of crude escalates in North Dakota. As the number of trucks coming to the oil mecca increases, so does the trash. Some of the industrial rubbish blows in from unsecured truckloads, but for many, the most frustrating trash is the gallons of discarded urine.
The problem has local leaders and rural residents scratching their heads. There's no money to build new rest stops, and once-eager community volunteers are less willing to pick up junk now because they don't want to handle human waste. So little has been done to address the problem, save for upgrading mowing tractors with cabs to protect operators from getting sprayed with urine when the jugs are hit by a wheel or blade.
"I don't know if it can be solved other than by people having some respect because right now the countryside is being taken for granted," said Tioga Mayor Nathan Germundson. "It's a growing problem and it's sad."
The jugs are known around these parts as "trucker bombs," and they freckle the countryside. They show up in a variety of containers: antifreeze jugs, beverage bottles or milk cartons, and are usually hurled by drivers too hurried or weak-bladdered to stop and relieve themselves politely.
Of course, there's a reason they're thrown in the first place. There are only three rest stops along the hundreds of miles of highway in western North Dakota, and all are well outside the busiest areas of the state's oil patch. Until there are more truck stops or rest areas on the much-traveled route, the jugs will probably still be tossed by truckers, said Tom Balzer, executive vice president of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association.
"It is a huge issue, but one of the biggest problems is there isn't lot of places for these guys stop to properly dispose of the receptacles," Balzer said. "I don't know that it's a case of being disrespectful but of the unbelievable growth out there."
The oil rush has brought the promise of prosperity to the state but it also has radically altered its landscape and culture. Nodding donkey pumps now rise from the once barren prairie, and there's been an influx of thousands of outsiders seeking their fortune in the oil patch. North Dakota has leapfrogged past a half-dozen states since 2006 to become the nation's No. 3 oil producer, and state officials estimate North Dakota will surpass Alaska and will trail only Texas within a year.
That's the reason truck traffic has surged. The number of trucking companies operating in North Dakota increased by 600 last year to about 6,000, with most working in the oil patch, Balzer said. Nearly 100 new trucking companies were established in January alone, he said.
Catching urine-tossing truckers is difficult, according to authorities. Troopers issued an average of a dozen littering tickets annually in western North Dakota over the past three years, up from about seven in the three years before that.
"We have to be in the right place at the right time," North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Jody Skogen said. "When a squad car is behind a driver, they are not as inclined to chuck something out the window."
Even if they do catch someone in the act, the penalties aren't high. The Transportation Department unsuccessfully pushed legislation more than a decade ago that would have bumped fines from $20 to $500 on anyone caught dumping human waste on the roadside. The agency intended to post roadside signs saying it was illegal to throw human waste on the road or ditch, and advertise the $500 fine. But lawmakers decided the signs would be off-putting and killed the legislation.
Tioga citizens, fed up by littered roadways leading to their town, cleaned up part of the highway south of the city last spring. In less than one mile, volunteers picked up more than two heaping truckloads of rubbish.
But such efforts are tough to sustain. Membership in the state's Adopt-a-Highway program has dropped in the area, and the jugs of urine may be partly to blame, said Walt Peterson, a Transportation Department district engineer in Williston. Even though state officials recommend that volunteers stay clear of the jugs and leave them to state maintenance crews to clean up, volunteering is a tough sell.
For one, the jugs are repulsive. Two, they can explode under pressure from heat.
"The membership is down and they're older," Peterson said. "They don't want to pick up that much stuff and there is too much dangerous stuff like needles and urine jugs."
Peterson said his agency and local officials formed a group last month to address the litter issue in and around the city. Part of the plan calls for companies working in the oil patch to pay student groups to pick up the trash. So far, no one has signed on. But at least two companies have volunteered to pick up garbage along stretches of highways in Dickinson and Watford City, said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
Gary Evans, treasurer of the local Lions Club in Stanley, said his group has been picking up trash along roadsides for more than 20 years. He said the club has about 15 active trash pickers and all are retirement age.
Evans said he has picked up his share of urine jugs over the years and the amount has increased. Volunteers wear gloves and carefully handle the urine containers. Evans says he's fortunate never to have been showered with an exploding jug of urine.
"The ditches are full of them," he said. "It's pathetic."