Death by a Thousand Cuts

Pipelines Leak.

If North Dakota didn’t have such an awful reputation for not enforcing its environmental regulations in the Oil Patch, maybe we wouldn’t have a few thousand people camped out along the Cannonball River protesting the mother of all North Dakota pipelines, Dakota Access.

Pipelines have been leaking oil and dangerous fracking salt water all over western North Dakota for about ten years now, and while our state’s own environmental protection agency, the North Dakota Department of Health, has a pretty incredible rapid response team ready to go out and monitor spills and subsequent clean-up efforts, they are hampered by superiors in higher pay grades who let the on-the-ground enforcers do little, if anything to punish the polluters who are despoiling our landscape.

It is the policy of North Dakota state government, under orders from the state’s highest elected officials—the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission—to slap oil companies on the hands rather than take a board to their backsides when they make their messes in western North Dakota.

It’s pretty easy, and also pretty accurate, to paint the Industrial Commission with a broad brush, as tools of the oil industry, so eager for the campaign contributions they provide and the economic riches they’ve brought to the state that they forego environmental enforcement, so today I’m going to cite some specific examples of why I and others more concerned about our land, water, air and wildlife than about dollar signs are so upset with Jack Dalrymple, Wayne Stenehjem and Douglas Goehring.

I’m going to talk about just one of the hundreds of oilfield companies at work here, even today, in the second year of the Great Bakken Bust.

Denbury Onshore. You won’t remember, but I wrote about them almost three years ago. The headline on that story was “Time To Send Denbury Packing?”  That was shortly after they had spilled almost three-quarters of a million gallons of saltwater into Big Gumbo Creek on the North Dakota-Montana border. Big Gumbo creek runs into the Little Missouri River, the life blood of the North Dakota Bad Lands. This was not their first pipeline leak—it was one of many—and I suggested that our governor tell them to “pack their bags and get the hell out of North Dakota.” Yeah, right.

Well, a month or so ago, as we were approaching the three-year anniversary of this spill, I went into the Health Department database to see what had come of that incident. I learned that there has been some monitoring of Big Gumbo Creek and the Little Missouri River by the Health Department during that time period. Samples were taken as recently as June of this year at several locations, including at Big Gumbo’s confluence with the Little Missouri River. On September 23, 2016—just three weeks ago, and almost three years since the spill—Health Department inspector Martin Russell wrote this: “Received results for samples taken in June. Results show elevated levels of production (brine) water indicators still present in the water, (my emphasis) despite apparent recovery of vegetation in that area. More followup required next growing season to continue monitoring vegetation.”

Damn! Almost three years after the spill, there’s still salt water in Big Gumbo Creek from that spill, and it may be flowing into the Little Missouri River. Double Damn!

Well, then I asked the Oil and Gas Division (that’s Lynn Helms’ department—the agency that regulates oil and gas development in North Dakota) and the North Dakota Health Department what action, if any, had been taken against Denbury for that incident.

Alison Ritter, spokesperson for the Oil and Gas Division, responded “Not under the jurisdiction of OGD as this occurred in MT. However, DoH may have some jurisdiction due to water impacts.”

Bill Suess, an investigator for the Department of Health, responded “A Notice of Violation is pending.”

So, now, three years after one of the worst saltwater spills in our state’s history, not only did Denbury not “pack up its bags and get the hell out of here,” but they haven’t even been fined or cited for it.

Well, it’s too bad for us that they didn’t go away, because here’s what they’ve done since. It’s a list of similar incidents I’ve been able to find in the Health Department database. In each case, I have asked both the Oil and Gas Division (OGD) and the Department of Health (DoH) if any action has been taken against the company. Their responses follow.


November 27, 2013—A leaky valve on a water injection well owned by Denbury Onshore spilled 2,000 gallons of oil and 12,000 gallons of saltwater at an oil well site near Maxbass, in Bottineau County.

OGD: No violation. Reported on time. Cause was a mechanical failure.

DoH: The site has been remediated however NOV (Notice of Violation) is pending.


January 7, 2014—2,000 gallons of saltwater leaked from a pipeline at a well site owned by Denbury Onshore in Bowman County. The water flowed into Kid Creek.

OGD: No violation. Reported on time. Clean-up concluded.

DoH: Stayed on E & P pad, NDIC retained jurisdiction.


October 29, 2014—About 17,000 gallons of water leaked from a Denbury Onshore pipeline in Bowman County and flowed into a drainage of the Little Missouri River.

OGD: No violation- reported on time. Under DoH jurisdiction.

DoH: Release was source water and site has been remediated.


December 4, 2015—9,000 gallons of saltwater flowed from a pipeline connection leak at a Denbury Onshore well site near Marmarth in Bowman County.

OGD: No violation. Reported on time. Site has been remediated.

DoH: The site has been remediated however NOV is pending.


February 8, 2016—A Denbury Onshore pipeline in Bowman County leaked 8,400 gallons of water into a stock dam.

OGD: No violation (under current rule) reported on time. Due to water impacts, clean-up would be under DoH.

DoH: The spill occurred on February 6 and was source water and not produced water.


May 18, 2016—Multiple tanks at a Denbury Onshore well site overflowed, spilling 105,000 gallons of saltwater and 16,800 gallons of oil onto nearby land.

OGD: No violation, cause due to an electrical outage. Reported on time and responded with appropriate clean-up.

DoH: No Waters of the State were impacted.  Remediation has been completed and site is being monitored for proper re-vegetation.


July 18, 2016Denbury  Onshore reported 84 gallons of oil leaked from a pipeline in Billings County. Health Department investigators later reported that the leak was actually 21,000 gallons of oil and 5,000 gallons of saltwater from an underground pipeline. A massive cleanup effort is underway. And a Health Department follow-up report on August 18, a month after the incident, said “To date, 818.75 total bbl (34,387 gallons) of fluid (both water and oil) have been removed from the site.”

OGD: No violation. Cause was a ruptured flowline. OGD is working with DoH to continue to monitor clean-up. Company reported immediately and remediation is on-going.

DoH: Incident is much larger than reported.  Remediation and investigation are ongoing.


August 9, 2016—A break in a pipeline owned by Denbury Onshore in Bowman County resulted in 168,000 gallons of saltwater flowing into a nearby creek.

OGD: No violation. Current pipeline rules only require a company to submit location information about a pipeline installed after Aug. 1 2011. Proposed pipeline rules do give the division some latitude on enforcement should a leak occur on a pipeline. Since this spill impacted a creek, the clean-up would be under the supervision of DoH.

DOH: The spill did impact a creek bed.  Remediation and investigation are ongoing.


August 10, 2016—16,800 gallons of saltwater leaked from an oil well site operated by Denbury Onshore in Stark County.

OGD: No violation. Tank fitting failure. Remediation on-going.

DoH: Stayed on E & P pad, NDIC retained jurisdiction.


August 29, 2016—10,700 gallons of an oil and water mixture was spilled at a Denbury Onshore well site near Fryburg in Billings County.

OGD: No violation- cause was a lighting strike.  Some fluid did leave site and is still being remediated.

DoH: No impacts to Waters of the State.  The site is under USFS jurisdiction.


Okay, that’s ten of what the Department of Health on its website calls “Environmental Incidents” by Denbury since the big spill three years ago. And so far, not a single Notice of Violation has been issued against the company for any of those events. Not a single dollar of fines has been levied against the company. Operative words: “No Violation” and “NOV Pending.”

Keep in mind it is the policy of the Industrial Commission—Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring—that when they do issue fines, they only collect 10 or 20 percent, forgiving the rest of the fine, with the warning that “If you do it again, you’re going to have to pay the whole fine.” Well, I guess if they don’t issue any fine at all, there’s no warning not to do it again. In Denbury’s case, they just keep on dumping and spilling. “Notice of Violation Pending” seems to be the standard practice. And pending, and pending, and pending . . .

And it’s not just this one company, Denbury. The Bismarck Tribune story quoted the Health Department’s Bill Seuss in a story earlier this year saying “Denbury’s track record is no worse than other companies. The department recorded 1,600 spills last year.”

And last year was a pretty lean year. Here are the number of spills reported to the Health Department year by year, since the boom began.

2009: 456

2010: 602

2011: 1,124

2012: 1,261

2013: 1,803

2014: 2,184

2015: 1,648

That 2014 figure comes to an average of six spills every single day of the year, and each of them needs to be monitored by state agencies to be sure they are cleaning them up, a massive effort. More, likely, than the agencies can handle. We just have to hope the companies are doing their job.

(By the way, if you want to see the correlation between the number of oilfield spills in North Dakota and the price of oil, there’s an interesting chart on this website that tracks pretty closely with the list of spills above.)

The Bakken Bust began in 2015, and you can see the resulting drop off in spills because of the drop off in activity in the Bakken. Want some good news? So far this year, as of October 15, we’ve had just 912 spills (only about three a day, instead of six), and at this pace, in 2016 we could drop back below 2011 levels.

There’s no way I could go back and try to find out how many fines have been issued. I know there are some.  I’m looking at the records for a company called Oasis Petroleum right now. When I get done looking at them, I’ll report back.

The number in the list above comes to more than 9,000 spills—we’ll go over 10,000 this year. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact those spills are having on our land, our water, our air and our wildlife. It’s death by a thousand cuts. 10,000 cuts. Damn!

Now do we understand why there’s a few thousand people camped out beside the Cannonball River? Because the Dakota Access pipeline is going to cross the Missouri River in  North Dakota, and no one trusts North Dakota any more.

5 thoughts on “Death by a Thousand Cuts

  1. Thanks for this great article. I posted it to my Facebook page as well as to our group’s Facebook page Citizens Against Increased Radioactive Waste and sent a copy to everyone I though might give a darn in my e mail list.

    I think it is clear that the governing body in Bismarck does not give a damm. I would like to know how much oil related gifts hit their pocketbooks and off shore accounts. We need a standoff in western ND and see how far that stretches the precious governor’s solution of sending out the HP, the National Guard and making protests something to be arrested for.

    I hope the next governor is not such a jerk.

    By the way, a lovely gas spill by Watford City this last week. Of course, you can’t see that, so no telling how much hit the air we breathe.


  2. Add 100 year old natural gas pipelines leaking & exploding.

    So much excitement going on in ND. Let’s review the soap opera:

    Chairman Dave Archambault of Standing Rock SRST says he is not in control of DAPL camps or protests. A rancher reports 30 head of cattle missing. And points the finger at DAPL camps. Journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now is due in court Monday for rioting charges, not trespassing. Pine Ridge OST wants to send in another 1,000 Sioux.
    Spiritual medicine men declare this as a fulfillment of a 125 year old prophecy & morph DAPL protests into some kind of cult movement. ACLU of ND investigates DAPL protests policing tactics. Camp organizers boasted about raising over $800,000 & could be more than $1 million. Problem. Donors want accounting for finances & supplies sent to DAPL camps. Law enforcement is busy figuring out how to shut this down if things get worse or out of control.

    Rare Video filmed by NYPD. The end of “Occupy Wall Street” camp. The raid starts @ 1am & flashing is coming from stun guns.


  3. North Dakota has lost its environmental concerns expressed by Governor Art Link in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when coal was being developed in North Dakota. Then Governor Link said that we should put the land back to its original condition so after coal mining was all done the land could go back its original usage whether for agriculture or wildlife. The central idea from Link’s era was that coal mining development had NO RIGHT to destroy the long term sustainability of the environment or agriculture. Governor Link wanted t make sure future generations could use the land for farming, living, or ranching. He also wanted wildlife, birds, and fish to also have places to live in North Dakota too. Governor Link wanted to make sure that coal development did NOT turn North Dakota into one giant Superfund sight with toxic chemicals and pollution making the land unusable for future generations of humans and wildlife.

    It seems as if the wisdom of Governor Link have been forgotten by our present generation of North Dakota political leaders. Here is an idea of what should be done following Governor Link’s thoughts of environmental sustainability. North Dakota should have built or should build a huge oil refinery in Mandan. I have heard complaints about regulations and red tape paperwork. These are excuses for state officials to sit on their rear and not do it. A large oil refinery in Mandan makes perfect sense because North Dakota could develop oil based on its ability to REFINE OIL for the REGIONAL MARKET. North Dakota would have fewer oil trains and pipelines with this type of plan. Perhaps, smaller oil refineries on rail networks on the border areas could be built too for additional refinery capacity. The idea here is to refine fuel for the REGIONAL MARKET in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and perhaps Nebraska and Iowa. Fuel could also be sold to Canadian provinces which is the reason for building some smaller oil refineries near the border.

    Also combined cycle natural gas power plants must be built so that all of North Dakota’s coal power plants can be shut down. These older coal power plants are soon 40 years old and obsolete compared to modern combined cycle natural gas power plants that are TWICE as thermally efficient and have lower levels of pollution. The state of North Dakota could finance these projects from the reserves of money and the State Bank of North Dakota. The jobs and profits would stay in the state for local economic development. As these loans were paid back to the State Bank more loans could be made to support solar projects, wind turbine farms, and biomass fuel projects. This whole approach would have fewer environmental problems and risks, while creating jobs and economic diversification for North Dakota residents. Why do North Dakota politicians want to tolerate the “boom to bust to budget cuts” cycles and Superfund sights caused by allowing huge out of state corporate entities to use North Dakota as an extraction colony? This approach laid out above would allow for modest oil development for the region, protect the environment from most risks associated with the get quick rich fever, and help develop green energy development in the state. This simpler approach of REGIONAL marketing of oil actually helps local residents in North Dakota with more good paying jobs while diversifying the economy and developing green energy projects.


  4. I urge everyone to read the first blog from 2013. Combined with this information, it is quite damning for the Industrial Commission. Excellent reporting, Jim!


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