BISMARCK, N.D. – When a pipeline rupture sent more than 20,000 barrels of crude spewing across a North Dakota wheat field, it took nearly two weeks for officials to tell the public about it.
The break in a Tesoro Corp. pipeline happened in a remote area, and officials say no water was contaminated or wildlife hurt. But environmentalists are skeptical and say it’s an example of a boom industry operating too cozily with state regulators.
“It shows an attitude of our current state government and what they think of the public,” said Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded landowner group with more than 700 members in North Dakota. “It’s definitely worrisome. There is a pattern in current state government to not involve the public.”
The North Dakota Health Department was told about the spill on Sept. 29, after a farmer whose combine’s tires were coated in crude discovered oil spewing and gurgling from the ground. Although the state initially thought just 750 barrels of oil was involved, it turned out to be one of the largest spills in North Dakota history — an estimated 20,600 barrels over 7.3 acres of land, or about the size of seven football fields.
The Health Department said the fact that the spill initially was believed to be small was one reason the agency didn’t make a public announcement for 11 days — and only after The Associated Press asked about it. Some top state officials, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, have said they weren’t even told about the pipeline break until this week.
Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Health Department, said that while companies must notify the state of any spills, the state doesn’t have to release that information to the public. That’s not unusual in major oil-producing states: Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas also do not require the government to publicly report spills. North Dakota is the nation’s No. 2 oil producer.
But the public is often told about spills, particularly if oil gets into a waterway or otherwise threatens the environment.
This oil spill occurred in a field near Tioga, not far from another wheat farm where oil was first discovered in North Dakota in 1951. The nearest home is a half-mile away, and state regulators say no water sources were contaminated, no wildlife was hurt and no one was injured.
But Morrison, of the landowner group, and Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, aren’t convinced.
“When seven acres of agricultural land is affected and they say there was no environmental impact, it defies common sense and logic,” Morrison said.
“Obviously, if you have an oil spill, some species of wildlife are going to be impacted, no matter where you have a spill,” Schafer said.
Roberts says his agency reacted appropriately. He says Tesoro reported the spill to state regulators within one day after a wheat farmer found it. A state regulator was on site within hours, Roberts said.
“We deal with a spill and make sure it’s cleaned up,” Roberts said. “We don’t issue press releases.”
However, Roberts did work with Tesoro in crafting a company news release on Wednesday. The company issued the media statement on Thursday, after questions from the AP. In the news release, Roberts said Tesoro “has been aggressive in containing the crude oil” and he was “very pleased with the company’s proactive response efforts.”
Even some other state officials are concerned about how they found out about it.
Brian Kalk, chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said the three-member commission routinely gets updates on even small spills, but he wasn’t notified of the Tioga spill until Thursday. One of the commission’s jobs is to regulate where pipelines are placed.
“There is almost a million gallons of product on the ground and we need to find out what happened,” said Kalk. “I’m upset that we didn’t find out until yesterday.”
The source of the spill was a hole in a 20-year-old pipeline that was a quarter-inch in diameter. Tesoro officials were investigating what caused the hole in the 6-inch-diameter steel pipeline that runs underground about 35 miles from Tioga to a rail facility outside of Columbus, near the Canadian border. Roberts said it may have been caused by corrosion.
As far as federal involvement, the Environmental Protection Agency was notified of the spill but has no jurisdiction because water sources weren’t affected, Roberts said. Officials from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration were on site last week, he said.
Efforts to reach the agency Friday were not successful due to the federal government shutdown.
In farmer Steve Jensen’s wheat field, workers were continuing with cleanup efforts Friday, during heavy rain. Tesoro has said the cleanup costs are pegged at about $4 million, and Roberts said would continue from “a couple of months to a couple of years.”
Jensen likened his once wide-open wheat field to “an excavation war zone.” He said his land is ruined for farming for the next few years but he hopes lessons are learned.
“This brings light to the necessity of using the highest-tech monitoring systems out there,” Jensen said. “There is no reason this was not detected.”
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