Blog Archives

Cidade Recorrente Film Released

Check out the latest film from the Petropolis Studios. This one is produced by Peter Stone and Bomin Park, and the project was conceived in the Floating Frontiers phase, conducted at Rice University’s School of Architecture. Enjoy!

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Petropolis Reviewed in Onsite Review

The Petropolis of Tomorrow was recently reviewed by Stephanie White in Onsite Review. White reviews the use of the archipelago as a design strategy, stating “The Petropolis of Tomorrow is valuable, for its engagement with the pariah industry of the twenty-first century, its thoughtful theoretical arguments and its snapshot of how, willingly, architectural thought discards on-the-ground reality in favour of the utopian project”. Read more in issue 31 “On Mapping and Photography”.

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Radioactive Socks & Other Products












Written by: Petra Marar, Assistant Editor

An April 15 Wall Street Journal article reported on two recent discoveries in western North Dakota of abandoned radioactive waste in the forlorn gas station of a 121-resident town, and in proximity to a Watford City landfill.  The garbage bags of waste contained “oil socks,” which are three foot long filters made from porous fiber used in hydraulic fracturing.  In addition to wastewater sediments, the filters also accumulate radium, an EPA-termed naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) found in soils and rocks, like the Bakken shale formation, that surround oil and gas drilling processes.

The State responded by enacting a regulation requiring the temporary containment of radioactive waste in leak-proof material on the well sites.  The challenge to finding a long-term in-state solution to store contaminated oilfield waste, however, endures.  North Dakota’s dumpsites currently do not accept waste material with the levels of radiation found in the oil socks.  As a result, the waste is transported to other states with facilities capable of long-term radioactive waste containment.

Measures of North Dakota’s daily production of radioactive waste range widely from eight tons to 75 tons daily, the latter provided by the state’s Department of Mineral Resources director.  While the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade association representing almost all of North Dakota’s oil producers, argues that the radiation levels are safe for existing in-state dumps, the illegality, toxicity, and lack of infrastructure describe the broader political, economic and environmental issues of locating and managing increasing quantities of radioactive waste nationally, as a result from technological innovations in hydraulic fracturing.  State-defined regulations of the industry’s various radioactive waste products require a variety of containment methods and, in many states, are currently under review.  In the Marcellus formation, West Virginia just enacted a law requiring the design and construction of lined pits separate from state landfills, and Pennsylvania is examining options beyond the current permit of onsite burial in lined pits.

The introduction and increase of radioactive materials into states across the country should be addressed beyond state-led legislation on waste regulations, management and accountability measures.  In Designing America’s Waste Landscapes, Mira Engler writes a clear argument for advancing technology and strategies that combine toxic waste management with other productive land uses:  “All forms of waste are eventually consumed, used and recycled in a chain of matter and energy flow.  But humans have persistently mismanaged their waste, creating new types at an increasing pace and in excessive quantities without establishing recovery mechanisms that enable their flow and circulation back into the cultural / natural systems…[waste] is a link in the continuous flow of matter and energy.”


In North Dakota, where radioactive waste did not exist prior to the recent extraction boom, and where industrial and political incentive exists to retain the waste in-state, the consideration of opportunistic approaches to siting this historically marginalized product could look to combining retention with existing land uses.  Eastern Montana’s 23-acre Oaks Disposal Services, pictured, is one of the closest landfills receiving North Dakota’s oilfield NORM waste.  The site is surrounded by the owner’s farm operations and is within proximity to ranching and drinking well-water.  While well-known precedents, such as New York’s Freshkills, are an inspiration, they may not be effective plural infrastructures in places beyond dense urban areas, such as the Great Plains’ vast landscapes.  Could the economic implications of the state’s population growth, unemployment rates, and real GDP, combined with a steady political will responding to public concern over negative impacts like illegal dumping, create the right incentives and circumstance to support such projects?  Can toxic waste management be safely integrated into the construction, maintenance and development of existing large scale public projects, such as national parks or recreation areas?  Constructing new forms of wilderness, as discussed in my previous post, and considering toxic materials as a product rather than mere waste, provides a challenge or an opportunity to improve upon America’s exurban toxic waste management practices.

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Silence in the Boom: Constructing Theodore Roosevelt’s Wilderness in the Bakken Play

Written by Petra Marar, Assistant EditorImage1


Preservation is as much about anticipating the future as it is about constructing the past. When commenting on the recent oil and gas development in North Dakota’s Williston Basin, Theodore Roosevelt scholar Clay Jenkinson explains that the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s three separate units “will literally be surrounded by a level of industrialism that nobody could have predicted.” This punctuates an enduring perspective of the Great Plains region as articulated in 1965 by cultural landscape writer J.B. Jackson:

Not that [the Great Plains] appears destined to undergo a population boom; quite the contrary.  The Great Plains region is in fact growing at the slowest rate in the nation…as a result of this, a great number of once flourishing farm villages in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and northwestern Texas and Oklahoma are slowly but surely dying, to become latter day ghost towns, remote from the larger highways and all but unvisited.

Measures of Bakken Formation producing wells, population growth (the fastest in the nation), and unemployment rate (the lowest in the nation) indicate extraordinarily rapid growth in North Dakota that would have disturbed Jackson’s certain vision of ghost towns.

As a result, laws perceived as adequate in 1990, when the NPS published the park’s Land Protection Plan, now threaten the distillation of Theodore Roosevelt’s silent badlands and grasslands for public consumption and wilderness protection.  The 2013 Visitor Guide to the National Park Sites of North Dakota notes that the “2,000 trucking events,” drill rig, well pad, debris pit, flare pit, storage tank, and access road, needed to prepare any given site for drilling, dwarfs the park’s three units that comprise less than 1% of the Bakken play’s surface area.  Temporary settlements persist, regional highways expand, and the coordinated rail, truck and pipeline conduits strive to keep pace with oil production predictions.  In the midst of the boom, development patterns emerge from continental-scale logistics; as pipelines are constructed, fewer trucks are needed.

Given that tensions between oil and gas development and Theodore Roosevelt National Park have only increased, the NPS may need to reconsider methods for protecting wilderness.  This park has inherited the challenge and capacity to demonstrate the malleability of aesthetic, economic and political perceptions of wilderness in American history.  The Ordinance of 1785, influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s distaste for wilderness, imposed a checkerboard of public and private ownership over large portions of America.  Between the 1930’s and 1970’s, a series of National Park Service legislative boundaries superimposed regulations over this checkerboard, influenced by Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner’s valorization of wilderness protection.  The 1990 Land Protection Plan furthered conservation practices to balance the Park’s historic preservation efforts and to negotiate between the various entangled public and private agents in the region.


The Park’s management of approximately 30,000 acres of wilderness today, informed by the Land Protection Plan, should be informed by these historical definitions of wilderness, regional pre-colonial land management practices, and today’s economic and cultural reality.  Is the National Park Service, in cooperation with private companies, other government agencies, and citizens, able to adjust the cultivation of wilderness, both within and adjacent to the park, to engage current and predicted development patterns?  Will a time come when access roads, abandoned, can provide corridors of valued vegetation communities, or otherwise be repurposed through road management practices?

This proximity between the public and oil and gas infrastructure, which can be fatally dangerous, provides an extreme opportunity to study, reconsider and alter land management practices that mediate between public and heavy industrial spaces.  Dr. Peter Galison of Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science recently presented a lecture at Cornell University entitled “Wastelands and Wilderness: Nuclear Lands,” and discussed his pursuit to understand American wilderness today, which has been identified as a natural site for nuclear waste.  Galison emphasized the challenge to identify a form of communication that marks the site’s entirety with “do not dig or drill before A.D. 12,000” — and legally endure 10,000 years.  Architect Michael Brill envisioned numerous solutions to publicly mark the nexus of wilderness and this contentious element of American identity.

Image3At the risk of being too opportunistic in regards to such dangerous situations, unique, positive conditions, too, have emerged from this juxtaposition: South Carolina’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Savannah River (Nuclear) Site, home to radioactive alligators and turtles, is also one of South Carolina’s most biodiverse areas.  Logistical, economic, aesthetic and ecological frameworks all contribute to land use practices that apply to the case of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as well.  Interdisciplinary frameworks, design speculation, and revisiting planning tools such as zoning, cooperative agreements and easements, should guide amendments to the Land Protection Plan and future strategies in the ongoing material and philosophical construction of wilderness.

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Islands of Public “Wilderness” and Private Industry in America’s National Park System, Part 1

Written by Petra Marar, Assistant Editor

In 2012, oil and gas drilling operations occurred within National Park units in Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Ohio.  Last year, thirteen units in the National Park Service hosted oil and gas development projects and 22 hosted geothermal resources.  Adjacent to over fifty units, “active and potential coal and hard rock mining, coal bed methane and oil and gas development” occurred in 2013.  The North Dakota Bakken oil boom surrounds the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, its rigs and flares constructed within park view sheds; one film describes “the park’s three separate units [as] islands in a sea of development.”  Lastly, that the Gateway National Recreation Area’s legislative and physical islands are embedded within the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, where industrial ships and kayakers interlace in Federal Navigation Channels, suggests a pattern in which islands of resource extraction or constructed wilderness are embedded in or define the edge of one another.

Image01The cause of this surprising intimacy between what is thought of as pristine wilderness and heavy industry dates to the General Mining Law of 1872.  While no new claims can be made today within national parks, US citizens were once able to make and continue to hold  “unpatented mining claim[s]” on federal lands in order to extract minerals which include: “gold, silver, zinc, copper, cinnabar, lead, tin, feldspar, uranium, antimony, bismuth, molybdenum, magnesium, nickel, tungsten and talc.”  Once the claim has been granted, citizens may apply for legal “ownership of the surface lands and the underlying minerals.”

The National Park Service acknowledges the inherent tension resulting from legal frameworks in the protection, exploration, and extraction of resources within and adjacent to its sites.  Parameters distinguish the use of national park lands between park visitors and private or corporate users.  During the 2013 federal government shutdown, national parks closed to tourists, hunters and park rangers, as oil and gas drilling sites within its boundaries remained in operation.  From the beginning, the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which created the park service to manage and protect the national parks, included legislation on the management of oil and gas rights established within national park boundaries.  However, “about half of the 668 nonfederal oil and gas operations in eleven units” are exempt from these regulations and are not required to gain NPS approval.

This manipulative power of legislation looms over the ability of the NPS to cultivate aesthetic experience, ecological functions, and resource protection and management experienced through soundscapes, scenic views, dark night skies, wildlife, water and air quality, and geologic and hydrologic processes.  How do and should extraction processes operate within national park service units and participate in the public image of these parks?  Do extraction sites within or in close proximity to national park units operate with lower levels of pollution and maintain facilities to higher safety standards?  Do trails and views organized for public park use guide visitors towards an experience of resource extraction, or do the parks maintain the image of a wilderness divorced from industry?  Through this series, I aim to examine these questions situated in specific pairings of national park units and the associated industry.

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