AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
Accidents can, and do, happen. Nobody is infallible and no piece of equipment is guaranteed never to fail.
But, considering how there seems to be an oil or saltwater spill somewhere in the Bakken region on an almost daily basis, one has to wonder if the oil and pipeline companies are doing everything that they can to prevent these accidents. If they are doing everything right, and a piece of equipment fails, that is one matter. But, if they are cutting corners, not installing monitoring devices, or just being plain careless in order to keep costs to a minimum and profits to a maximum, that is quite another thing.
Since McKenzie County is at the epicenter of the oil development in North Dakota, it would seem logical that it would also have the highest incidence for these types of accidents. While the majority of these spills have been relatively minor and have been able to be cleaned up in a matter of weeks, that is not always the case.
Unfortunately, McKenzie County has had two of the largest saltwater spills in North Dakota’s history.
The first major saltwater spill occurred in January of 2006 when a pipeline owned by Zenergy spilled one million gallons of saltwater into the Charbonneau Creek near Alexander. The saltwater spill resulted in major environmental damage to the ground and caused extensive dieoff of fish and other animals in the Charbonneau Creek before it hit the Yellowstone River.
And then over this past fourth of July weekend, another million gallon saltwater spill occurred in the Bear Den area of McKenzie County when a separation occurred in a pipeline owned by Arrow Pipeline LLC that sent highly toxic water flowing down a ravine toward Lake Sakakawea. While the saltwater did not enter the lake, the damage to the environment is extensive with all of the grasses, trees and shrubs in the drainage path killed and the soil contaminated.
In the case of the Charbonneau Creek spill, it was a rancher who reported the spill. In the case of the Bear Den spill, it wasn’t until the company was evaluating their production loss reports that they noticed a glitch, which ultimately led them to find the spill.
The tragedy in both of these cases is that there were no monitoring devices on the pipelines that would have immediately notified the company that a leak was occurring.
It was a similar story in August of 2013 when a Tesoro Logistics pipeline leaked 865,000 gallons of oil into a Tioga farmer’s field. Again, there was no requirement for the company to monitor the pipeline for leaks.
While oil spills are messy, they don’t pose the environmental risks that saltwater spills do. When an oil spill occurs, the oil can be sucked up and the excess burned off with only limited damage to the soil. Saltwater leaks, on the other hand, lay waste to everything they touch and render the soil sterile because of the high salt content that leaks its way into the ground. The resulting remediation can take years to complete and run into tens of millions of dollars.
Considering that saltwater from oil exploration is between 10 and 30 times saltier than sea water and is considered an environmental hazard by the State of North Dakota, one has to wonder why there are not more stringent requirements being placed upon oil and pipeline companies to monitor pipelines and other facilities for leaks.
It is fairly obvious that the oil and pipeline companies would rather take their chances when it comes to oil and saltwater spills and gamble that the cost of cleanup is going to be less than it would be for them to install monitoring devices.
And apparently, the North Dakota Legislature and the State Industrial Commission agree with that logic because there is very little talk of forcing the pipeline and oil companies to install monitoring equipment.
And that short-sightedness by the companies and the State of North Dakota officials could very well have some long lasting impacts on our environment. As more and more oil and saltwater pipelines, without some form of leak monitoring devices, go into the ground the risk of another major leak grows exponentially.