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1 million gallons of saltwater leak from North Dakota pipeline

Around 1 million gallons of saltwater has leaked from a North Dakota pipeline, some of it into a bay that leads to a lake that provides drinking water for an American Indian reservation, company and tribe officials said Wednesday.

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall told The Associated Press that 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. The Missouri River reservoir provides water to communities on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes in the heart of western North Dakota's booming oil patch.

Saltwater, an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production that is between 10 and 30 times saltier than seawater, is considered an environmental hazard by the state. At least some damage to trees, bushes and grass was reported, but the extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

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.

Miranda Jones, vice president of environmental safety and regulatory at Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Services Inc., whose subsidiary Aero Pipeline LLC owns the pipeline, said the leak likely started over the holiday weekend but was not discovered until Tuesday. The pipeline is not equipped with a system that sends an alert when there is a leak, she said, and the spill was only discovered when the company was going through production loss reports.

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

"We have a berm and a dike around it, around that bay area, to keep it from going into the lake," Hall said.

Cleanup efforts were underway Wednesday afternoon. The Associated Press spoke with Jones and Hill on a road leading to the spill site north of Mandaree. The area is characterized by its Badlands terrain of steep-sided hills. The spill site is located deep inside private land, and the AP spoke to officials out of sight of the spill.

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.

The number of saltwater spills in North Dakota has grown with the state's soaring oil production.  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.

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation plays a key role in the state's oil production, the second-highest in the nation. The reservation currently represents more than 300,000 of North Dakota's 1 million barrels of oil produced daily, according to the state's Department of Mineral Resources.

In 2006, a broken oil pipeline belched more than a million gallons of saltwater into a northwestern 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 ruptured pipeline allowed saltwater to spew unnoticed for weeks into a tributary of the Yellowstone River near Alexander and caused a massive die-off of fish, turtles and plants.

That spill came during the infancy of North Dakota's oil boom. Now, a network of saltwater pipelines extends to hundreds of disposal wells in western North Dakota, where the brine is pumped underground for permanent storage.

Proposed legislation to mandate flow meters and cutoff switches on such lines was overwhelmingly rejected last year in the Legislature.

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