North Dakota Needs to Overhaul Spill Reporting

There is a troubling pattern in North Dakota when it comes to reporting and cleaning up spills and leaks of our natural resources. You’ve likely caught on to the routine yourself. A spill or leak occurs. It is discovered – sometimes by the landowner or farmer – and reported with an estimate of the volume spilled and area impacted. The state inspects and discovers the spill is oftentimes much larger than first estimated by the company. North Dakota needs to overhaul spill reporting and what is expected of companies for cleanup.

This past weekend, an estimate of saltwater from a pipeline leak in Dunn County was updated. The update following an investigation showed an estimated 32,826 barrels, or 1,378,692 gallons, of saltwater were discharged. The original estimate from Marathon Oil? Roughly 500 barrels, or 21,000 gallons. How in the hell can an oil company be that far off and be taken seriously? That saltwater contaminated a pasture, a creek, and the water supply for cattle.

We got out to the site and when we looked at it, everyone kind of knew it’d be bigger than (Marathon) initially estimated.” – Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality told was reported as saying.

It goes without saying, the long term impacts of a saltwater spill to landowners and farmers are much more devastating than an oil spill. The excuse used by regulators and oil companies in reporting saltwater spill incidents is that saltwater is much harder to detect and accurately report compared to oil spills because of its subsurface nature. Except that doesn’t explain why the same pattern can be found when companies report an oil spill. In other words, an unacceptable excuse.

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For example, in December of 2016 an estimated 4,200 barrels or 176,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Belle Fourche Pipeline in Billings County. The updated estimate weeks later? 12,615 barrels, or 529,830 gallons of oil was leaked. Again, a gross underestimate of the volume leaked and its impact.

Then there is the Tesoro oil leak near Tioga in 2013. Only discovered because a farmer had oil on his tractor tires. The first estimate of the spill was 750 barrels according to Tioga. Later, the company increased the estimate to 20,600 barrels, or approximately 840,000 gallons, making it one of the largest spills in North Dakota history. That cleanup took nearly five years and cost approximately $93 million to clean up. 

There are more examples of this reporting pattern. I challenge you to try and look through the state database. It is incredibly difficult to navigate. How many other estimates were substantially off? Were “smaller” spills ever really that small? It begs the question of whether or not some of these updates are even publicly available.

I’ve long advocated for smart oversight of our pipeline infrastructure. Streamline oversight in state. Mandate newest technologies are being used on this infrastructure. Get a grip on subcontracting used in both construction and cleanup. Stop dramatically reducing fines on companies that violate state law. Lastly, execute a full performance audit of the Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources to see how we can further improve state operations in energy development.

Is it important to have timely information in these spills? Absolutely. But it is very unsettling to see how this is handled in our state. The public shouldn’t have to expect a “holy shit!” moment weeks or months later when we find out the real impact of these accidents after we’ve been lulled to believe they’re minimal leaks. Perhaps taking the company’s estimates of the damages and its costs aren’t an ideal model North Dakota should continue to use.

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