Spills Mounting in North Dakota

Thursday, May 4, 2017 @ 05:05 PM gHale

In December 2016, a farmer found crude oil was leaking from a six-inch pipeline buried on his property, and running down into nearby Ash Coulee Creek, which is a tributary of the Little Missouri River.
Photo by North Dakota Department of Health

In what has become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, North Dakota has become a living and breathing case in point for oil, natural gas, and brine spills.

It is understandable as fracking has been going on in the oil rich area for quite some time. But what else appears to be going on is unbridled building and drilling of wells without much thought to safety or protecting the environment.

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Two weeks ago, a Continental Resources pipeline in western North Dakota spilled 756 gallons of oil and 294 gallons of saltwater or brine, a drilling byproduct, into a tributary of the Little Missouri River. Continental Resources, the largest operator in the Bakken shale formation, leads North Dakota in active wells, spills of all kinds, and wastewater or brine spills, according to an Inside Energy report.

In the year ending on May 1, North Dakota’s oil and gas industry reported 745 involved oil spills which averages out to a spill every 11 hours and 45 minutes, according to the state’s Department of Health.

Granted, some of the spills were small.

On the other hand, some of the larger spills reached 400 barrels, or 16,800 gallons.

Along the lines of the bigger spills, in one on May 18, 2016, a tank in Bowman County overflowed, spilling 400 barrels of crude oil and 2,400 barrels of brine onto the ground, where it topped a retaining dike and flowed for 150 yards outside the facility, according to a KCET report.

That spill came within half a mile from the nearest residence and its water well.

On top of that, there were other spills in 2016 larger than 400 barrels.

On December 5, a farmer found crude oil was leaking from a six-inch pipeline buried on his property, and running down into nearby Ash Coulee Creek. Ash Coulee Creek, near Belfield in southwestern North Dakota, is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, which flows into the main stem of the Missouri River at Lake Sakakawea.

The Belle Fourche Pipeline Company, owner of the broken pipeline, eventually determined the leak had been ongoing for five days when the landowner found it. At first, the company reported to the state that 4,200 barrels had spilled from the rupture. By march, the company had upped that estimate to 12,615 barrels. Cleanup continues: in that same week in March, Bell Fourche reported it had recovered only 4,000 barrels of oil from the creek, and that workers had set the floating oil on fire more than 1,200 times since December.

State tests of Ash Coulee Creek, which flows in part through public land on its way to the Little Missouri, show the water now has elevated levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Cattle grazing near the creek, or drinking from the creek, may well be exposed to benzene as they drink water and breathe the air, passing that hydrocarbon on to whoever eats them. About six miles of the creek have been fouled by the spill.

Larger Spills
Ash Coulee wasn’t the largest spill in North Dakota history. It wasn’t even the largest spill in the last five years.

On September 29, 2013, there was a leak discovered in another six-inch pipeline in Mountrail County, in the northwest of the state. Tesoro, the pipeline’s owner, at first reported the spill as limited to 750 barrels. That figure was later adjusted to 20,600 barrels.

It wasn’t Tesoro that found the spill. It was the owner of the wheat field the spill contaminated. Steve Jensen, who noticed the leak due to the smell of crude permeating his farm, then found it slicking the tires of his combine. Cleanup crews got to work in short order.

More than three years later, they’re still at work. Crews have dug down 50 feet into the contaminated soil in some places. State regulators don’t think they’ll ever get the whole spill cleaned up.

Pipeline Spills
From the beginning of 2006 through October, 2014, there were 1,327 reported pipeline spills in North Dakota. 638 of these involved the release of at least a barrel of oil. (The others involved brine, wastewater, or other petroleum products.)

That’s a pipeline oil spill every five days, on average, over nearly nine years, and 41,672 barrels of oil spilled onto the North Dakota landscape. In other words, more than two gallons of oil for every resident of North Dakota.

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