Environment
Kevin Cederstrom/File/AP

Cleanup of North Dakota pipeline spill may take weeks

One million gallons of leaked saltwater may have contaminated drinking water on Native American reservation

It could take weeks to clean up 1 million gallons of saltwater that leaked from a North Dakota pipeline over the weekend. The saltwater, a byproduct of oil production, spilled into a bay leading to a lake used by a Native American reservation in the heart of the state's booming oil patch, according to company and tribal officials.

From oil to radioactive waste to saltwater, spills and even rail accidents involving trains carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken field have become increasingly common since the state's energy industry began expanding rapidly. 

The boom has had a notable impact on North Dakota's mainly rural, small-town population — bringing thousands of workers, largely men, into the state to work on the oil projects, which some have hailed as a success for job creation. Yet North Dakota also has the highest rate of worker deaths in the U.S.

In this week's spill, an underground pipeline near Mandaree leaked about 24,000 barrels, or just over 1 million gallons, of saltwater near Bear Den Bay, a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said. Tribal and company officials said the leak has been isolated and drinking water is unaffected. It wasn't known how much of the saltwater spilled into the bay.

The Missouri River reservoir provides water to communities on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. The reservation accounts for more than 300,000 of North Dakota's 1 million barrels of oil produced daily, according to the state's Department of Mineral Resources.

Cleanup continued on the Fort Berthold reservation Thursday, and Miranda Jones, vice president of environmental safety at Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Services, whose subsidiary Aero Pipeline owns the pipeline, said it was expected to last for weeks.

“This is something that no company wants on their record, and we are working diligently to clean it up," Jones said.

She said the leak at the underground pipeline likely started over the Fourth of July holiday weekend but was discovered only on Tuesday. The pipeline was not equipped with a system that sends an alert when there is a leak, she said. The spill was discovered when the company was going through production loss reports.

An investigator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency arrived on the site Wednesday afternoon.

Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health, said damage from the toxic spill could be seen when he visited the site on Tuesday.

"We've got dead trees, dead grasses, dead bushes, dying bushes," he said.

Karolin Rockvoy, a McKenzie County emergency manager, said it was apparent from looking at vegetation that the spill went undetected for some time.

In 2006, a broken oil pipeline belched more than 1 million gallons of saltwater into a North Dakota creek, aquifer and pond. The cleanup efforts are ongoing at that site, which has been called the worst environmental disaster in state history.

The number of saltwater spills in North Dakota has grown with the state's soaring oil production. Saltwater is an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production that is between 10 and 30 times saltier than seawater and is considered an environmental hazard by the state.

A network of saltwater pipelines extends to hundreds of disposal wells in western North Dakota, where the brine is pumped underground for permanent storage.

North Dakota produced 25.5 million barrels of brine in 2012, the latest figures available. A barrel is 42 gallons. There were 141 pipeline leaks reported in North Dakota in 2012, 99 of which spilled about 8,000 barrels of saltwater. About 6,150 barrels of the spilled saltwater was recovered, state regulators said.

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