North Dakota Fails to Disclose Hundreds of Oil Spills to the Public
A September oil pipeline spill is calling into question North Dakota’s lack of disclosure laws, which have allowed nearly 300 spills in the last few years to go unreported in the burgeoning oil state.
In 2012 and 2013, roughly 300 pipeline spills in the state went unreported, according to an Associated Press (AP) report that also uncovered roughly 750 oil incidents that had previously not been publicized.
According to state law, that’s just fine. There are no regulations in North Dakota regarding the disclosure of oil spills to the public.
The AP report comes just weeks after a North Dakota farmer uncovered a pipeline rupture on his land. Steven Jensen discovered the actual site of the pipeline spill after days of smelling oil. Jensen immediately reported the incident, he told the AP, but the pipeline’s owner, Tesoro Logistics, took a day to arrive on the scene.
At that point, more than seven acres of Jensen’s land were destroyed in what is considered one of the largest inland oil spills in the U.S. In all, 20,000 barrels—or 800,000 gallons—of crude oil leaked onto his farmland.
The incident was reported to the National Response Center on Oct. 8. News of the spill didn’t break for two days, and finally made headlines on Oct. 10—11 days after the initial report by Jensen was filed.
For those living in the state, this is a problem on a number of different levels. Not only did the regulators fail to notify the public, but there are also questions over whether the spill had any environmental consequences. Tesoro Logistics claims the spill did not result in any contamination of soil or groundwater.
Environmental organization Dakota Resource Council isn’t buying it.
“First, why was the public not informed about such a significant oil spill until Oct. 10? That is a long time since September 29, when the spill was reportedly discovered, to have kept the public in the dark about what was happening,” the organization stated in a press release. “Second, from all accounts in the media thus far, state officials and company spokespeople have said that the spill has not caused any adverse damages to the environment. This defies logic and common sense. Productive agricultural land—seven football fields in size—is covered in oil and the official response is no environmental damage?”
Officials Aren’t Spilling
Currently, all spills that have the possibility of tainting water sources must be reported to the North Dakota Department of Health. According to its website, reporting the incident is mandatory. However, penalties for failing to do so are not listed.
The Health Department has indicated it will take a more aggressive approach in releasing information on oil spills. Following the Jensen farm incident, Dennis Fewless, the Health Department director for water quality, told the AP his department was looking into revisions to its policies regarding oil spills.
On Friday, the Department of Health indicated it would test out a reporting website, which would provide an accessible database for the public to monitor reported oil spills in the state. As it stands now, the public does not have access to those reports.
Creating a system that allows for transparency isn’t supported by everyone.
According to AllGov, the state’s Department of Mineral Resources director Lynn Helms worries that reporting each and every oil spill, regardless of size, will create unnecessary concern.
That’s echoed by North Dakota Department of Health’s Kris Roberts, who is working on the Jensen farm oil spill cleanup effort with Tesoro Logistics. From his perspective, alerting the public every time a spill occurs isn’t the best use of time and resources, particularly if they’re not yet aware of the ramifications of the spill.
“It’s on top of a low hill, in the middle of a wheat field, in an area with no residents at all,” Roberts told the LA Times. “The public has a right to know. But do I have a responsibility to run out and tell the public every time there’s a spill that isn’t going to threaten them or the environment, and that the company is aggressively cleaning up?”
Yet for those who are concerned about receiving an accurate depiction of what is happening in the state, that’s backwards logic.
“The public really should know about these,” Dakota Resource Council Director Don Morrison told AllGov. “If there is a spill, sometimes a landowner may not even know about it. And if they do, people think it’s an isolated incident that’s only happening to them.”
Morrison’s organization takes issue with an industry that, in their eyes, lacks effective regulation.
“This latest spill should put to rest the calls for fewer regulations,” the organization states in a press release, referring to the Jensen farm spill. “It is hard to imagine how fewer regulations would have prevented this spill, made it more transparent to the public or sped up the cleanup. It also puts the spotlight on current state government claims that it is uniquely qualified to deal with energy development in our state.”
Other states that are in the midst of oil booms do have databases the public can consult for oil spills. In Colorado, where fracking has taken off, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a division of the state’s Natural Resources department, is responsible for providing permits and monitoring the fracking industry, publishes spill reports on its website.
Leak Questions Still Unanswered
The industry has long stated that oil pipelines provide a safe way to transport oil and natural gas throughout the U.S., yet the cases in North Dakota call that argument into question.
While many of the 300 pipeline spills over the last two years in the state have remained relatively small, they’ve still occurred—exposing farmland and water sources to crude oil, which has the capability of contaminating soil and water.
Most pipelines are fitted with technology that monitors fluid flow, capable of detecting when a spill is occurring. The technology recognizes imbalances in fluid, and sends out an alert when such imbalances are detected. But the technology doesn’t always work.
In cases where leaks are relatively small, oil spills can go for weeks without detection. In the case of the Jensen farm oil spill, Tesoro Logistics is still unable to answer how long the spill occurred—all Jensen knows is that he smelled oil days before his tractor traveled over a contaminated patch, which will him to the source of the leak.
The controversy in North Dakota, which is the second largest oil producing state in the nation, comes in the midst of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy. The proposed 1,800-mile pipeline would pump Canadian tar sands from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through some of the nation’s richest farmland.
Abbi Harrington-Kleinschmidt, a Nebraska farmer whose land sits along the proposed Keystone route, told Mint Press News in July that she and her fellow Nebraska farmers would do all they could to fight Keystone. Like others, she’s concerned about the potential for oil spills on her land, which she considers to be some of the best soil in the nation.
“It just goes right to my core, probably because of the legacy that ties to my family for five generations,” she told Mint Press News. “And knowing that my ancestors who worked so hard—and my sisters and I, who have shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that farm too. What’s so upsetting is that a foreign corporation can threaten to come and take your land from you with such a dangerous pipeline.”
President Barack Obama has the final say on the pipeline’s approval. A date for his decision has not yet been made, although it is expected within the year.
Visit EcoWatch’s PIPELINES page for more related news on this topic.
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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