Posted 5/13/14 (Tue)
Jensens believe the state should do more follow-up
By Kevin Killough
It’s a rainy day on Steve and Patricia Jensen’s farm a few miles north of Tioga. Her house sits next to a big red barn where friendly dogs, along with a “free range” horse named Dice, roam the property.
It’s a about a mile-and-a-half from where the Jensens’ farmland was saturated by the largest oil spill ever on U.S. soil, resulting from a leak in a Tesoro pipeline that went undetected for at least a month.
A few weeks ago, the North Dakota Department of Health approved a remediation plan that will dig up the affected soil, use heat to burn off the hydrocarbons, and then backfill it into the site.
According to a consultant’s report on the plan, the goal is to return the field to its pre-spill state.
Patricia points to the deep tracks digging into the gravel roads running through the hilly country.
With a chuckle, she talks about how temporary weight restrictions on the muddy county roads kept things quiet for a day around the farm. But during the night the trucks came down the roads to evade the restrictions under the cover of darkness.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says.
The current remediation plan projects a two-year process, but Patricia says Tesoro employees have told her that it will probably take longer than that before operations are finished.
“The whole pipeline industry needs to learn from this,” she says.
When asked what has been irrevocably altered in the idyllic life she once enjoyed, she pauses as her eyes well up.
“I’m sorry,” she says, standing up to get herself a tissue.
After a moment to collect herself, she calmly explains, “There’s a reason this happened. I don’t know what it is.”
A quiet life disrupted
After news of the spill got out, she and her husband were inundated with questions from reporters from all over the world.
Her husband’s picture was in newspapers as far away as China and Denmark.
They also received visits from people she calls “snake oil salesmen,” offering products and services to help with the cleanup, hoping they could reach Tesoro through the Jensens.
She says her email was hacked at one point.
“My quiet little world has been disrupted,” she remarks.
Immediately after the discovery, the vice-president of Tesoro flew out to Tioga to apologize in person for the damage to their farm.
Patricia says the company has been diligent in its commitment to taking responsibility for the spill, but the process has been slow. Through testing, permitting, and planning operations — and winter weather — it has been seven months since the spill was discovered.
“In the meantime, the oil has moved,” she says.
She has pictures of a large pile of grain that had been harvested just as they were discovering the spill. Fearing it was contaminated by the oily soil, they didn’t know what to do with it and were concerned with it being put on the market, where it could be used in foods.
Tesoro bought it all and then used it in the containment process.
“That was wonderful of them,” she says.
At the site, work crews are preparing for the remediation process. A chain-link fence surrounds an area of more than 30 acres.
A Tesoro employee approaches. He exchanges friendly greetings with Patricia. She refers to him by his first name. The man discusses with her a few details of the developing plans for a natural gas pipeline that is being built to bring fuel to the thermal treatment unit.
He asks her if she has any objections and she tells him the plan is fine with her.
The state’s role
Patricia says there are a lot of dedicated and talented professionals working on the remediation, but there aren’t a lot of best practices established for a soil-based spill of this size.
“We’re the test,” she says.
She’s concerned state authorities have not been as attentive in the investigative and reporting role they should be playing in the disaster. She says this will deprive the industry of a valuable learning experience that can prevent future leaks.
“They are minimizing it,” she says.
The contamination has spread beyond the original measurements, and there are indications the groundwater has been contaminated.
According to Dave Glatt with the North Dakota Department of Health, testing has identified organic compounds in the ground water at the 140-foot level where private wells draw from, but the concentration of these compounds is only at “extremely low levels.”
It’s believed these could be naturally occurring, but the state continues to monitor the ground water to be certain.
“That’s something we want to keep an eye on,” Glatt said.
The technical aspects of investigation are often difficult to understand, and since the department is overseeing the cleanup, Patricia has to trust the state’s word as they oversee the cleanup.
Patricia says the state is leaving many unanswered questions as to what caused the leak and how to prevent similar catastrophes from happening in the future.
“I don’t hear them asking the questions they need to ask,” she says.
Glatt said the state has limited responsibility for the investigation of the cause of the spill, which falls to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the US Department of Transportation.
The agency released a safety order to Tesoro last October, which placed 21 requirements on the company concerning monitoring, examining, and reporting on its pipelines and tanks.
The agency is also doing metallurgical testing on the broken piece of pipeline, but no results have been publically released.
Preliminary results point to an electrical discharge, possibly lightning, as being the cause of the leak.
The investigation continues, and the agency is requiring Tesoro to submit a plan to be approved before the pipeline can be used again.
Patricia has copies of satellite photos taken last August — one month before the spill was discovered — which she downloaded from Google Earth. At the center of the field is a darkened spot where the then-undiscovered spill was starting to seep through the soil.
“How could they not know there was a leak?” she asks.
Stewards of the land
She has a large collection of pictures related to the spill, including the remains of a Hess drill location from the 50s or 60s, which was discovered when trenches were dug all around the Tesoro spill. There are old tires among the unearthed remains of the older drill site.
“They probably did what was required back then, but those tires shouldn’t be there,” she says.
Many years ago, a Hess treater location was on another corner of spill site, she says.
Despite all efforts, it’s unlikely the soil in that spot will ever grow anything again. Unlike hydrocarbons, you can’t heat, burn, or wash away salt.
“We thought we could fix it,” she says.
She believes people have a responsibility to the land and fears that responsibility is not being met.
“It’s God’s land. We’re just the stewards, and I feel like we’re failing,” she says.