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North Dakota: The Oil Spill State

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Just another day in North Dakota: an oil spill burns in a wildlife refuge in 2010 | Photo: USFWS
Just another day in North Dakota: an oil spill burns in a wildlife refuge in 2010 | Photo: USFWS

North Dakota is an oil-drenched state. In the year ending on May 1, 2017, according to the state’s Department of Health, the state’s oil and gas industry reported 745 involved oil spills — on average, a spill every 11 hours and 45 minutes.

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Some of those spills were in the 20-gallon range. Others were larger. Two of the larger spills reached 400 barrels, or 16,800 gallons. In one such spill, on May 18, 2016, an tank in Bowman County overflowed, spilling 400 barrels of crude oil and 2,400 barrels of brine onto the ground, where it topped a retaining dike and flowed for 150 yards outside the facility. The spill came within half a mile from the nearest residence — and that residence’s water well.

And there were a couple of spills in 2016 bigger than 400 barrels.

Much, much bigger.

On December 5, a farmer found that crude oil was leaking from a six-inch pipeline buried on his property, and running down into nearby Ash Coulee Creek. Ash Coulee Creek, near Belfield in southwestern North Dakota, is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, which flows into the main stem Missouri River at Lake Sakakawea.

The Belle Fourche Pipeline Company, owner of the broken pipeline, eventually determined that the leak had been ongoing for five days when the landowner found it. At first, the company reported to the state that 4,200 barrels had spilled from the rupture. By march, the company had upped that estimate to 12,615 barrels. Cleanup continues: in that same week in March, Bell Fourche reported it had recovered only 4,000 barrels of oil from the creek, and that workers had set the floating oil on fire more than 1,200 times since December.

Spilled crude in Ash Coulee Creek in 2016 | Photo: ND Department of Health
Spilled crude in Ash Coulee Creek in 2016 | Photo: North Dakota Department of Health

Tests of Ash Coulee Creek, which flows in part through public land on its way to the Little Missouri, show the water now has elevated levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Cattle grazing near the creek, or drinking from the creek, may well be exposed to benzene as they drink water and breathe the air, passing that hydrocarbon on to whoever eats them. About six miles of the creek have been fouled by the spill.

Ash Coulee wasn’t the largest spill in North Dakota history. It wasn’t even the largest spill in the last five years.

On September 29 2013, a leak was discovered in another six-inch pipeline in Mountrail County, in the northwest of the state. Tesoro, the pipeline’s owner, at first reported the spill as limited to 750 barrels. That figure was later adjusted considerably upward, to 20,600 barrels. Some observers called it North Dakota’s largest known oil spill, though another pipeline break spill in 1989 may actually have been larger.

Oil slick on a wheat field near Tioga, ND | Photo: Neal Lauron, Greenpeace
Oil slick on the Jensens' wheat field near Tioga, ND | Photo: Neal Lauron/Greenpeace

It wasn’t Tesoro that found the spill. It was the owner of the wheat field the spill contaminated.  Steve Jensen, who noticed the leak due to the smell of crude permeating his farm, then found it slicking the tires of his combine. Cleanup crews got to work in short order.

More than three years later, they’re still at work: Steve Jensen’s spouse Patty Jensen told the Christian Science Monitor last year that crews have been on site 24/7 since the spill.  Those crews have dug down 50 feet into the contaminated soil in some places. State regulators don’t think they’ll ever get the whole spill cleaned up.

The Tesoro spill highlights the difficulty in cleaning up a leak in a buried pipeline, whether that pipeline is a six-inch line beneath a wheat field or a 30-inch pipeline buried 90 feet below the Missouri River. But pipeline proponents say that shipping oil via rail is much riskier.

Less than four months after the 2013 Tesoro spill on the Jensens’ farm, a train collision near Casselton dumped the contents of 16 tank cars full of crude oil onto the ground, where the oil flowed into a culvert and caught fire. Around 11,500 barrels of oil were spilled in that incident.

Cleanup at the 2013 derailment and spill near Casselton, ND |  Photo: Ann Arbor Miller/Greenpeace
Cleanup at the 2013 derailment and spill near Casselton, ND | Photo: Ann Arbor Miller/Greenpeace

Shipping oil by rail is undeniably risky, and communities across the country are organizing in opposition to rail oil shipments through their neighborhoods. But it’s worth noting that the December 2013 derailment near Casselton, the worst railroad oil spill in North Dakota history, did considerably less damage than two pipeline spills that have happened since.

No surprise there: train derailments are relatively rare compared to pipeline breaks, which happen every week in North Dakota, sometimes more than one a day.

From the beginning of 2006 through October, 2014, there were 1,327 reported pipeline spills in North Dakota. 638 of these involved the release of at least a barrel of oil. (The others involved brine, wastewater, or other petroleum products.)

That’s a pipeline oil spill every five days, on average, over nearly nine years, and 41,672 barrels of oil spilled onto the North Dakota landscape. In other words, more than two gallons of oil for every resident of North Dakota. Does it really matter whether it hits the earth all at once, or just one or two barrels at a time?

RELATED EXHIBIT: To learn more, visit Standing Rock: Art and Solidarity, on view beginning May 20, 2017 at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Poster art, T-shirts, and photographs demonstrate the immediacy of the protests and conflicts as they have unfolded, while a video art piece by the Native collaborators of Winter Count and a historical tour explore the broader meanings of these events.

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Dakota Oil Spills | ALMA and Friends
Indigenous Lands
Lands either held or claimed by Native nations
Dakota Access Pipeline
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline would carry up to 450,000 barrels of oil per day through four states, crossing rivers that provide water for 17 million people downstream.
Keystone Pipeline
A controversial pipeline system, partly operational in 2017, that ships Canadian crude oil to U.S. terminals
Critical Habitat
Areas defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as crucial for the survival of Endangered and Threatened species
Urban Cores
Places with population densities higher than 1,000 per square mile
Water Bodies
Lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and reservoirs
Occurred Oil Spills
An incomplete set of recorded oil spills
Potential Oil Spills