Anatomy of a Pipeline Oil Spill

Note: This post has been updated from its original version because of some additional information provided to me by the North Dakota Health Department. Thanks to Inspector Bill Suess for that.

Out in the Oil Patch, when a pipeline leaks, or a tank overflows, or a valve is accidentally left open, and something (mostly oil and toxic salt water) spills onto the ground or spreads through the air in oily mist, the responsible company is required to file an “Environmental Incident Report” with either the State Health Department or the State Oil and Gas Division. If the incident is serious enough, an inspector is dispatched to the area to investigate and supervise cleanup operations.

If a spill is at a wellsite or tank battery or wastewater disposal site, the report is made to the Oil and Gas Division, and then the Oil and Gas Division places a written report on the Health Department’s website under the header “Oilfield Environmental Incidents.” In 2016, 1,229 of those reports were placed on that list. The good news: that’s the lowest number since the oil boom began, down by almost half since the peak of the Oil Boom in 2014, reflecting the Oil Bust that’s taken place in the last 18 months.

There’s another, shorter list on the Health Department’s website called “General Environmental Incidents.” It’s where the Health Department itself—not the Oil and Gas Division—files reports on mostly minor environmental incidents, things like:

  • A tank was hit by an airport snow grader, causing a leak.
  • A transformer in a downtown alley was hit by a truck, causing a leak.
  • A molasses tanker was overfilled spilling molasses over the side of the railcar and onto surrounding area.
  • A CHS truck put too much diesel in a tank and it overflowed.
  • The driveshaft came off of a truck and punctured the diesel tank.
  • A mineral oil release from a transformer was discovered and approximately two cups hit the ground.
  • A “Honey Wagon” spilled 50 gallons of domestic sewage into a ditch.
  • A vehicle overheated while idling, spilling two gallons of vehicle coolant.
  • A truck tipped over when it ran off the road and 40 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the ditch.
  • A tank trailer cracked open slightly leaking yellow corn syrup out at about 5 gallons per minute

As you can see, North Dakota companies are pretty good at reporting even the smallest incidents to the Health Department. “Two cups hit the ground.” That’s the way we do business here. Most of those incidents don’t require an inspector to go to the site and check them out. Companies clean up their little messes and file a report.  There were about 300 of those reports filed in 2016, as opposed to the more than 1,200 oilfield incidents.

But there’s one recent incident on that Health Department General Environmental Incident list that really sticks out:

  • 4,200 barrels (176,000 gallons) of crude oil leaked from a buried 6” pipeline and ran downhill approximately 100 yards into Ash Coulee Creek in Billings County.

The reason it is on the list of General Environmental Incidents instead of the Oilfield Environmental Incidents (even though it happened in the oilfield and involved an oil spill), according to Bill Suess of the Health Department, is because this spill happened from what is called a “transportation pipeline.” The oil in the pipeline was leaving the oil patch for some other destination, likely ending up in a refinery.

Suess explained that there had been an “ownership transfer” of that oil, and the oil and the pipeline were no longer under the jurisdiction of the Oil and Gas Division. Instead, jurisdiction had moved to the Health Department, and that is why the spill was not listed as an Oilfield Environmental Incident. The Oil and Gas Division is responsible for reporting spills in the exploration and production phase of the industry. The Health Department takes over jurisdiction once it is being transported out of the Oil Patch.

It’s a minor point, perhaps, but I point this out because generally when nosy people like me go looking for information on oil spills, we look on the Oilfield list. From now on, I know I have to look at both lists

Well, anyway, matters at hand. The Belle Fourche Pipeline Company leak was discovered December 5 by the rancher whose place is about a quarter mile from the creek. No one knows how long the pipeline had been leaking, because the pipeline’s monitoring system wasn’t working at the time (NO DAPL water protectors take note). The rancher apparently called the pipeline company, and the pipeline company called the Oil and Gas Division about noon that day.The Health Department has been monitoring the 176,000 Belle Fourche Pipeline spill (by anyone’s standards, that’s a big, big spill), and subsequent cleanup efforts, since it happened, with at least seven different inspectors assigned to it at various times. Those inspectors have been joined by personnel from the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard (don’t ask—I don’t know) and the U.S. Forest Service (the creek with oil in it runs through Forest Service land).

I wanted to write a bit about this spill as a prelude to another story I’m writing, the second of two parts of a series on winter campouts in the Bad Lands, which I will finish later this week, and which contains a reference to this spill. So here’s some notes from the Health Department’s website, as listed under General Environmental Incident # EIR5282. I am referring to the Health Department inspectors by number, rather than by name—no need to drag their names into this. They seem to be pretty conscientious fellows. And these notes show you just how hard they work–up and on the job at 7 a.m., and going home after evening meetings, in the dead of winter, 150 miles away from their Bismarck homes–and how much work is involved in cleaning up big messes like this. My guess is this s going to be a winter-long process, and an expensive one. And there’s no telling what Ash Coulee Creek is going to look like when they’re done.

Smoke from the oil burning in Ash Coulee Creek on December 24, 2016. The site is about 9 miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.

Dec. 5, 2016.

Initial Oil and Gas Division report: Pipeline leak 4200.00 barrels. The cause of the pipeline leak is at this time unknown. Crude oil leaked from the buried 6″ pipeline and ran downhill approximately 100 yards into Ash Coulee Creek. Spill was verbally reported to (Inspector 1)-NDDOH at 1223 hours on 12/5/16. Risk Evaluation: Ash Coulee Creek has been impacted. Action Taken or Planned: Crews have placed at least four sections of containment boom across the creek downstream of the leak. Additionally, approximately 4 miles downstream of the leak a siphon dam has been constructed. Oil recovery efforts were also underway late afternoon in an area approximately 1 mile downstream of the leak. The line has also been shut down and isolated. NDDoH Field Inspector 2 was notified and was on location 12/5/2016.

(Inspector 2’s field notes)

I arrived at the landowner’s residence at 3:00 p.m. CST on December 5, 2016. The landowner showed me where crude oil was running into Ash Coulee Creek approximately 0.25 miles south of the farm/home place. It appeared the hillside on the east side of Ash Coulee Creek had slumped downhill into Ash Coulee Creek. It appeared the hill slumping/sliding downhill may have caused the pipeline to leak. I then walked downstream along Ash Coulee Creek for approximately 0.5 mile and observed crude oil floating on the stream’s surface the entire distance that I walked. The landowner indicated to me that a couple of his cows had died recently, and he thought the cows died because they may have consumed crude oil from Ash Coulee Creek. The landowner then guided me to a point on Ash Coulee Creek that he said was 5 miles west of where crude oil was entering Ash Coulee Creek. Crude oil was observed on the creek’s surface at this point. At about 5:00 p.m. CST, trucks transporting booms were observed traveling to the spill area. I left the site at 5:15 p.m. CST.

At 10:00 a.m. CST on December 6, 2016, I arrived at the East River Road bridge over Ash Coulee Creek. (Note–If the inspector knew for sure he was at East River Road, this would be approximately 10 miles from the spill site and just half a mile from where Ash Coulee Creek runs into the Little Missouri River. Dangerously close. Much farther than other reports of how far the spill had traveled, and how close to the rive it was.) Ash Coulee Creek was frozen over. A vac truck was observed recovering, or attempting to recover, crude oil from Ash Coulee Creek at the creek crossing. When leaving and traveling south on Fair Weather Road, I observed two dead cows a few hundred yards south of Ash Coulee Creek. I left the spill area at 5:15

On December 7, 2016, I arrived at the landowner’s residence at 10:00 a.m. CST. The weather was partly cloudy, -6 degrees F and windy. At 10:30 a.m. CST. I talked to the landowner and he stated that he now has seven dead cows.

Dec. 8, 2016

Inspector 3 attended meeting at responsible party’s command center at 7:15 MT to establish incident command system including EPA, NDDoH and responsible party. Met with U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to inspect alternative locations to access creek and recover free product.

Dec. 9, 2016

Inspector 3 had morning meeting with responsible party and USFS to evaluate access points to the impacted creek at 7:15 a.m. MT. Inspected release site and extent of the spill with the responsible party. NDDoH command center was established near impact location. Location was flown in helicopter by responsible party contractor to assess the extent of the damage. Plan is to bring in several crews of workers to manually remove contaminants from impacted creek. Nightly meeting at responsible party’s command center to determine the day’s actions and to follow up on what will happen tomorrow.

Dec. 10, 2016

Inspector 3 arrived at responsible party command center for a morning briefing. Site inspected by ground and by helicopter by NDDoH and EPA on-scene coordinator. Sample locations and underflow dams inspected by NDDoH employees. Nightly meeting with responsible party, EPA on-scene coordinator (OSC), USFS and contractors.

Dec. 11, 2016

Inspector 4 visited command center in morning to review plan for the day’s work. Spent the morning and afternoon at release site walking areas of the creek. Photos were taken. Attended nightly meetings. A controlled burn was proposed as a possible option for removing oil impacts to creek. A plan will be written and will need approval from company, state, EPA, and USFS before a test burn will take place. An additional 60 workers will be at the site Monday or Tuesday to help the cleanup efforts. A rough estimate of total loss during release was 3100 barrels into the creek and 1100 barrels in the soil on sidehill. The total amount of 4200 barrels was entered into the database as the volume released.

Dec. 12, 2016

Inspector 4 at command center 8:00 a.m. Discussions continued about planning controlled burn and what location would be best for the test location.

Dec. 13, 2016

Inspector 4 arrived at command center at 7:00 a.m. Reviewed action plan for the day Additional 60-person crew has arrived and will begin with their cleanup efforts tomorrow. Attended the Unified Command meeting at 17:00. An in-situ test burn was discussed as a remediation option.

Dec. 14, 2016

Some final pieces are being put in place for potential test burn to take place. Spoke to Landowner at 1:10 pm. No concerns were shared at this time. He would like to see the test burn take place. Landowner declined any additional sampling from wells in the area.

Dec. 15, 2016

Inspector 4 at command center at 7:30 a.m. Approval for test burn was received. Burn was planned for 10:00 a.m. At location at 8:50 a.m. A number of people are at location in preparation for controlled test burn. Three pumps pumping creek water and a pump from freshwater truck are on site to control fire. The sidehill and surrounding vegetation was wetted and allowed to freeze. Burn was started at 11:18 a.m. Burn lasted 31 minutes before being put out with water and fire extinguishers in an attempt to see if fire could be stopped if need be in the future. Creek area burned was approximately 30 yards by 6 yards. For the most part, the fire remained in the creek as planned. Some minor burning of vegetation occurred but was expected. Data will be gathered from the test, and it will be decided if burning is a viable option as part of cleanup.

Dec. 16, 2016

Inspector 5 attended full meeting at 18:00. The following representatives were present: two from the Coast Guard, three from the EPA, five from Belle Fourche Pipeline Co., six from the hired environmental consultants, and one from the USFS. Discussions included the weather report, air monitoring during the burn (no issues/status quo), safety of responders (no incidents), and environmental concerns (no wildlife impacted). According to the in-situ burn team, the burn was easy to control and could be extinguished with snow after the burn.

Dec. 19, 2016

Inspector 6 reported that burns continued. Some issue with intensity of fire due to more product being encountered in the creek closer to the POE, but access makes recovery impossible in these portions of the creek. Stakeholders understand some trees will be impacted by the burn. Application of fire around trees with crowns over the creek being worked on due to issue with limbs high up smoldering and not being easily extinguishable from ground.

Discussed the way the ice is holding back oil. Apparently, there are multiple layers of ice with layers of oil between each layer. By breaking through the center of the ice on the creek, the ice will bend down toward the center of the creek, draining the oil layers into the creek and making recovery and fires possible. Otherwise, any fire/recovery attempted on the surface of the ice would only affect the topmost oil layers. Some communication issues are slowing work due to rougher terrain blocking signals. Will be working on setting up repeaters at the tops of hills. Geotechnical team arrived and has started evaluating the slump area of the pipeline.

Dec. 21, 2016

Safety stand down part of day due to high winds and ice. Rest of day normal operations resumed. Burning continued. Burns starting to get close to more wooded areas; USFS will be working with the burn teams to determine whether trimming trees would help decrease risk to the trees.

Dec. 22, 2016

Sampled Ash Coulee Creek and the Little Missouri River with consultants for the responsible party. Slight “burnt hydrocarbon” odor along Ash Coulee Creek, but no odor noted at the confluence with the Little Missouri.

Dec. 24, 2016

Burns continued this day. Preparations for the incoming blizzard have continued since yesterday.

December 25, 2016

Site prepared in morning for blizzard scheduled to hit in the afternoon. All work stopped before noon and crews got to safety before storm hit.

December 26, 2016

No work today; roads closed due to snow. Crews will assess site/roads for work period of 12/27.

That’s the last entry in the report as of noon today. Lillian and I visited the burn site on December 24. The area was busy as a beehive with lots of white pickups all over the place. We observed the fire from a nearby hillside. You can read more about it in my next blog post. Here’s a link to the Health Department’s website. Here’s a link to the General Environmental Incidents database (you’ll note at the top a water spill of 100,000 gallons near Keene, ND, on December 28–not sure what that is about). And here’s a link to the actual incident report from which these notes were taken.

And as an aside, I pointed out earlier that the company’s pipeline monitoring system wasn’t working. I hope the company gets slapped with a big fine because of that. If it had been working, and the company had responded immediately, this might have been relegated to the ranks of the other minor spills listed on the Health Department website. Maybe a little more than two cups, but maybe a whole lot less than 176,000 gallons.

Also, I’m doing a little digging on this company, and will report back to you hen I know more about them. I’ve written about them before. I just have to refresh my memory. And that takes a little longer every year.

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Pipeline Oil Spill

  1. Love getting the field reports. odd the rancher didn’t opt in for further well testing; could his opting out at this point affect the opportunity to have the responsible parties pay for testing and/or any needed mitigation later?

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  2. Everyone who reads this report should realize how important it is to support the water protectors at Cannonball. Stop the spill before it happens! That is the only way to prevent contaminating the water. We are all in this together!

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  3. Keep an eye on this ND bill HB1151:

    Legislation aimed at changing this is before the 2017 session. Rep. Roscoe Streyle of Minot has introduced HB1151 which would stop the North Dakota Industrial Commission from requiring the report of any spill that’s less than 10 barrels and contained at the site of the incident.
    In other words, Streyle’s legislation would raise the state’s threshold for reporting up to meet the federal threshold.

    Key wording in bill HB1151 is “report of any spill”.

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  4. Just want to thank you, Jim Fugilie, for this article; found it very informative and easy to follow the “line-up of procedures and players.” Also appreciate the inclusion of the field notes—for the information and also to be reminded of the great Dakota landscape. And also, this article lead me to your Part I of winter Camping At the Elkhorn which I enjoyed. Thank you.

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