292 Unreported Oil Pipeline Leaks in North Dakota in less than 2 Years

Sunday, October 27, 2013
Steve Jensen (photo: Kevin Cederstrom, AP)

As the Obama administration nears a decision on whether to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands crude from western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast for refining and export, new information about hushed-up spills is raising additional questions about the project. The state of North Dakota—the country’s No. 2 oil producer and home to about 17,500 miles of pipeline—suffered nearly 300 oil pipeline spills in the past two years—and kept every one of them secret from the public.


According to the Associated Press, 292 pipeline spills (139 in 2012 and 153 so far in 2013) have released about 1,230 barrels of crude in the Peace Garden State since January 2012, while 459 other “oil field incidents” spilled 3,298 barrels, for a total of 4,528 barrels or 190,000 gallons of crude oil. Nearly half of the spills occurred in the middle of the state’s maze of pipelines, where spill detection is slow, while most occurred at sites where an oil well connects to a pipeline, making detection and cleanup quicker and easier.


Although most of the spills are classified as “small,” the toxicity of crude oil makes even small amounts hazardous to human, animal and plant life, and some spills have been quite large. On September 29, for example, farmer Steven Jensen discovered a six-inch fountain of oil bubbling up from his land and reported a pipeline spill. Investigators determined that a quarter-sized hole in a Tesoro Logistics pipeline had befouled at least seven acres of Jensen’s farm with more than 865,000 gallons/20,600 barrels of oil, making it one of the largest inland oil pipeline accidents in U.S. history. Lois Epstein, a civil engineer and pipeline expert for the Wilderness Society, estimates that oil may well have been leaking for weeks.


Nevertheless, North Dakota officials kept the massive oil spill a secret for eleven days, revealing the truth only after AP reporters started asking questions. Department of Mineral Resources director Lynn Helms—North Dakota’s top oil regulator—said his agency worries about “over-reporting” spills and wants to find a balance to so that “the public is aware of what’s happening but not overwhelmed by little incidents.”


But that view does not impress Don Morrison, director of the Dakota Resource Council, a 700-member pro-environment landowner group. “The public really should know about these. If there is a spill, sometimes a landowner may not even know about it. And if they do, people think it’s an isolated incident that’s only happening to them.”


As it is, North Dakota state law does not require that oil spills be made public and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires that companies have some way of detecting pipeline leaks, but offers few specifics. Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, argues that the federal government has fallen behind on pipeline safety: “Even though people have been calling for better leak detection, it is usually a landowner who finds the spills. It runs counter to what the industry tells us, that they can detect and shut off these spills in minutes, when they actually go on for days.”  


Soon after news of the large oil spill become public, the state Health Department suddenly announced that it is preparing a website to publicize all spills reported to the department, which would also allow users to track spills and their cleanup.


Northwest North Dakota farmer Louis Kuster welcomes that idea because information on spills “absolutely is important for us to know. What you don’t know, nobody is going to tell you,” he said. Kuster told AP that knowledge of small spills is important because even a barrel of oil could ruin water sources and force untold acres of land out of production. “It would tell me if there is enough oversight and why these accidents happen and if they could have been avoided,” he claims. “Right now, you don't know if there is a spill unless you find it yourself.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

ND Spills Went Unreported; State Testing Website (by James MacPherson, Associated Press)

Oil Spill in North Dakota Raises Detection Concerns (by Dan Frosch, New York Times)


Marie Badaloni 10 years ago
Our failure is the big question as we continue to foul our water, when will water be 10 dollars a gallon, the fracking companies already outbid farmers 8 to 1 for resources. We are fracking in over 36 states currently, unregulated, over 30% of the methane is burning 24/7. You can't eat or drink gas. I look forward to those of integrity and courage to come forward and look at the big picture of events to come because of our careless actions now. Band aids don't work. With the smallest population of all the continents we are the largest consumers of oil products in the world. We are irresponsible, we are selling all excess product overseas at the expense of our countries integrity. We've become head turners, look away there's nothing we can do. We still have a voice and deep down we know what is occurring is wrong and unjust, not only to ourselves but our excessive exploitation of our beloved US. I'm embarrassed by our politicians behavior as they fight over big money and not for the people of the United States. This has become an overwhelming task, but I have faith in us and us stands for the United States of America.
Samuel Federspiel 10 years ago
We have a choice, clean up the occasional oil spill, or pay $10 a gallon or more for gas. Can we rely on our "friends" in the middle east to keep sending cheap oil?
Alan Chandler 10 years ago
I cleaned up a lot of spills like this when I worked for an Oil field service company. I used a vac truck with pup loaded with hot water. When I left there was no trace of oil. A worst problem was salt water which left the soil sterile but with rain was restored in a few years. The oil companies are required to report spills and clean-up is monitored. Keeping all your cars on the road isn't a small item. These many spills are actually insignificant for North Dakota and they are all dealt with.
Kay Travis 10 years ago
Failure to disclose is a crime against the public! So is operating oil and gas pipes without proper control of them. Join the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which threatens this sort of destruction wherever it is placed!

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