(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part report looking at how oil spill incident reports are generated and the state’s role in this process.)
By John D. Taylor
A visit to the state Department of Health’s Environmental Incidents reports – these are found among the agency’s website pages – offers an eye-opening view of some of the things that happen when the oil industry goes after the state’s vast crude reserves.
One message a viewer can draw from a review of the reports is that the oil industry is doing a pretty tidy job of getting “black gold” out of the ground. With some 11,000 existing wells producing more than 1 million barrels of oil per day and more than 190 rigs drilling new wells this summer, oil’s spill record could be a lot worse.
Yet after reviewing a few of the individual reports, you might also start wondering: If there are some 97 website pages of incident reports for the current year, and 519 web pages of reports from 2006 to 2013, what sort of damage is big oil really doing to North Dakota’s bountiful environment? How much is really being reported? Are the reports accurate, or are they oil’s way of fluffing over damage? Also, what is the cumulative effect of so many spills on the environment? Are these spills like pennies going into a savings account – not much individually, but all together significant?
The Department of Health’s (DOH) public sharing of environmental reports began nearly a year ago, after the agency took a lot of heat about how it handled its role in the state’s biggest oil spill to date – the Tesoro pipeline break that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of Bakken crude – that’s more than 865,000 gallons of oil, at 42 gallons to the barrel – on to Steve and Patty Jensen’s Mountrail County farm, about nine miles north and east of Tioga.
The pipeline, built in the early 1990s, supposedly ruptured when some sort of electrical current was discharged into the ground, perhaps lightning.
Jensen discovered the seven-acre, teardrop-shaped spill while combining his wheat nearly a year ago. And industry officials began handling the spill and its clean-up within about 45 minutes of Patty Jensen reporting it, according to Jensen.
The leak had been going for several days, according to Jensen, who smelled crude before he saw it shining under his wheat.
Yet it was only good fortune and a 40-foot deep layer of clay beneath most of the spill that probably kept the oil from being a bigger problem than it was and getting into groundwater. With a somewhat different topography or soil structure, the spill could have been much worse.
Also, Jensen lost some farmland as a result of the spill, when crews excavated the oil-saturated ground, and he and his family are currently working out compensation for the damages.
The reports on DOH’s website go through a process, according to both DOH and the state’s Department of Mineral Resources’ Oil and Gas Division (OGD).
The reports begin when a spill occurs. If this spill is contained on the well pad, it falls under the purview of OGD; if it goes off the well site, DOH gets involved.
According to Alison Ritter, OGD Public Information Specialist, oil producers are required to contact an OGD field inspector, by phone, “immediately” when they discover a spill. Within 24 hours, the responsible producer must file a preliminary report, usually in an electronic form, about the incident.
This report lists the responsible party, the well’s name, the well operator, the date, time and location of the spill, a description of the spill, contact points, nearby land use, what was spilled (brine, oil or “drilling mud”) and an estimate of how much (usually in barrels).
Following all of this information, how DOH or OGD responded to the spill and the agency’s plans for the clean-up are listed.
The report is then sent to OGD, who ships it along to DOH.
According to Scott Radig, DOH’s Waste Management division director, DOH receives “read only” environmental incident reports. His agency can’t see the details of the report without logging into a joint database shared by DOH and OGD. Even then, DOH can’t edit information in the report, but can only add the agency’s response to the spill to the report.
Ritter verified the reports can’t be edited, but said the reports are “preliminary estimates based on company-provided information.” Follow-up reports, she said, contain a more detailed account of what actually took place during the spill.
If the spill goes off the well site – say saltwater leaks into a slough used for a drinking water source — the state’s Department of Emergency Services (DES) is also notified. DES will then contact all the stakeholders involved with the spill. Radig said sometimes, spills are called in by state radio, who passes the information along to OGD and DOH.
DOH shares the spill report information with the public “as received without modification.” Also, when DOH or OGD personnel investigate reported incidents, they update the information and include this with each report.
Yet when comparing information, things don’t necessarily jive.
The OGD/DOH report on the Tesoro spill, for example, claims only 750 barrels (31,500 gallons) leaked from pipeline, and that the acreage covered was 500 yards by 300 yards. Eyewitness accounts and earlier estimates of the leak contradict these numbers.
Radig said the difference in numbers is a result of follow-up on the preliminary report. The preliminary report estimated 750 barrels. (This report remains the official report in the DOH system.) Follow-ups revealed more than 25 times this amount actually spilled.
More typical reports are those filed in Divide, Burke and Williams counties during the last month or so.
For example, on Aug. 31, at Samson Resources Company’s Coronet 2413-3h well in Ambrose Township in Divide County, a “treater” leak dumped 35 barrels of oil. Visually, this is 1,400 gallon milk jugs of oil. However, the report claims all the liquid oil was contained at the location, and that 32 of the 35 barrels spilled were schlepped up by a vacuum truck and put back into the production tanks. What was lost was the three barrels (126 gallons) of “fine oil mist” that sprayed onto the adjacent grass. This was mowed, raked and sent to a proper disposal site. The well was also “shut in,” the water meter that had plugged, causing the treater to “stack out,” fixed before operations resumed.
A Burke County report shows how at about 1 a.m. on Aug. 5, a Taqa North USA, Inc. saltwater injection well line leaked, dumping about 100 barrels (4,200 gallons) of brine and some residual oil into a large slough near Lignite, just north of ND 5.
This is land is owned by the Bly family. Andy Bly told The Journal about this incident on the day it happened. At present, a consultant for the DOH is mapping the extent of the damage and preparing a work plan for remediation.
A similar spill took place in Williams County on Aug. 13, when a Kodiak Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. valve and piping connection failed and 300 barrels (12,600 gallons) of brine let loose.
Fortunately this was contained in a dike surrounding the disposal tank. The brine was returned to the disposal tanks. DOH investigated this, but since the spill remained on site, it was OGD’s baby.