A ‘Health Time Bomb’ In North Dakota’s Oil Patch

“It’s like working on a health time bomb, we are the guinea pigs for the largest condensate spill in U.S. history. I am glad I got out but feel sorry for workers still there.”

Those are the words of Paul Lehto, the man who’s publicly blowing the whistle on what is proving to be one of the largest industry spills in U.S history, a spill of 11 million gallons of condensate in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch.

The spill was first revealed in a story on the environmental website DESMOG, a site dedicated to “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science” by my young friend Justin Nobel, who visited here last summer investigating other oilfield incidents. Justin quoted an anonymous source, who he believed to be credible, who said a spill reported to be just 10 gallons was actually much greater, and North Dakota’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was essentially covering it up.



Now Justin has written a follow-up story, after Lehto became the second person to step forward and the first to do so publicly, to share his story in person. The story appeared on DESMOG this morning, quoting Lehto as saying “The reason I am coming forward is that while I didn’t think ONEOK was doing their job, I still trusted the state to regulate and do its job. But in reading what the state’s response was to the condensate spill, I have lost all confidence that the state is acting as a legitimate regulator.”

Lehto was referring to comments from DEQ after Justin’s first story in DESMOG, which defended the department’s practice of not updating the state’s spill website when it learned that a spill was much larger than was first reported. The story today with the new information provided by Lehto is even more damning to the oil company and the state’s DEQ. Moreover, it is a warning that those two parties may be endangering not just oilfield workers who have to perform their duties in unsafe conditions, but the general public as well.

The story has an interesting beginning. Back in May of this year, former Badlands Conservation Alliance executive director Jan Swenson, who had retired a few weeks earlier, received an e-mail that started like this:

“Good Morning,

“I am sending you this information with the intent to remain anonymous. I have worked on several very large oil spills in North Dakota and have noticed discrepancies on how they are being reported and its potential conflict with EPA, Water Commission and Forest Service assessment reports that may use this information to inform the public and ultimately make policy decisions.”

Jan forwarded the e-mail to me and a couple other friends, who read it with some interest, but none of us followed up on it.

Until Justin Nobel came to visit.

I shared the e-mail with Justin and he went to work. Justin‘s a good reporter. He spent a couple months researching, communicated with the anonymous source by responding to the e-mail address from which it had come, and quizzing the company and state officials. His story received broad coverage both in North Dakota and nationally. Most North Dakota media sources picked it up and did local follow-ups.

Immediately after the first story was published, Paul Lehto reached out to DESMOG’s whistle-blower hotline and left a message. Justin called him back and the result is Justin’s follow-up story.

The whistle-blower who sent the original e-mail has chosen to remain anonymous. But his story and Lehto’s are the same. Here’s more of what he wrote in the original e-mail:

“Case in point spill report EIR3825-Watford City (see attached Summary) was reported as 10 gallons. It is in fact over 11,000,000 million gallons of condensate that leaked through a crack in a pipeline for over 3 years. We started the project back in 2015 and have recovered over 1,000,000 gallons of condensate up to this point. It was recovered using a pumping network and pumped into a tank and sold for profit. The other recovery practice, I wasn’t enthused with was venting the condensate vapor to atmosphere. Ultimately, I pushed for a complete destruction method which was eventually adopted. Regardless, this spill is on the order of magnitude to the Exxon Valdez spill and I know for a fact that Bill Suess (Manager of the DEQ’s Spill Investigation Program) was made aware of its size in October of 2018 after 3-year investigation was completed to assess its size and scope. 

“I’ve also spoken with him to see if he would update the spill report and he claimed the investigation was “ongoing.” After working first hand on the project I was appalled to say the least, are we shielding the truth from public scrutiny? The contact person for this project (I’m omitting her name) is fully aware of this spill was responsible with other parties of reporting it to the State. The Spill Report has its location but it’s under the Oneok Gas Plant “Garden Creek”, northeast of Watford City, on the South side of the plant.”

The e-mail went on to talk about a similar spill at the Mandan refinery, which I don’t think has yet been reported on:

“The next spill has not been reported to my knowledge and is also an ongoing recovery effort on a slower scale, it is a large plume under the Tesoro/Marathon Refinery in Mandan. This Spill is located north of Tank Farm and extends into the ponds to the North.  It is being collected in a passive collection berm along the river and pumped back into the refinery to be treated. The size of the plume is roughly the same around 25 acres although the thickness is about 2-6”, whereas the thickness of the Watford City Spill was 2-3’ at its thickest spots. The spill is mainly LNAPL like the Watford City spill but with the bonus of DNAPL. Both petroleum products float on groundwater and slowly dissolve high levels of Benzene, Isopentane, Toluene and Hexane into the groundwater. Figure 1: Is the Carbon analysis of the LNAPL on that site. Unfortunately, the Mandan project has been leaking for years and from what I was told the source or cause wasn’t officially identified which could mean it still has a slow leak. The contact person was (I’m omitting the name) who was a third-party contractor at the time, but I believe works for the Refinery now.”   

 The e-mail went on to discuss several more environmental issues which were not being addressed by either the industry or the state, and concluded with:

“I am fed up with the rushed drilling programs and the lack of accountability when it comes to environmental impacts.  I am also disgusted with how the State and city council members view these threats and deem it acceptable to potentially harm human health by allowing these activities in what have been deemed or should be deemed protected areas.  And the complete lack and disregard for the wildlife that live in these areas which are now exposed to large amounts of Traffic, Pollution and Noise which disrupts normal behavior. Thank you for reading this and I wish I could be more help.”  

For his DESMOG story today, Justin spoke with former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, also a former North Dakota Assistant Attorney General, who called for criminal investigations in light of the false reporting.

“It is against the law in North Dakota to knowingly report false information to the state, and to make false state records,” Vogel said. “Weak and vague promises by the Governor, the Attorney General, the Health Department, or the Mineral Resource Division of the Industrial Commission that they will now seek further ‘transparency’ will no longer suffice. We need state and federal law enforcement authorities to do their jobs.”

Lehto doesn’t pull any punches in Justin’s story today, revealing how he discovered what he believed was the source of the leak, how he reported it to ONEOK supervisors, and how his reports were ignored. Finally, he just left the company.

“I quit,” Lehto explained to DeSmog, “because I couldn’t work at ONEOK and be honest.”

You can read Justin’s new story on DESMOG by clicking here. It’ll leave you shaking your head. Thank you Justin for your fine reporting. And thank you Paul Lehto for your willingness to tell your story. I hope something good comes of it.

UPDATE October 2, 2019

If you want to take a look at the spill report, you can do so by going to the DEQ website. What you’ll see at the beginning of the report, dated July 16, 2015, is this:

Volume Spilled: 10.00 gallons

Cause of Incident: A condensate leak was discovered underground on the pipe between the plant and pressurized condensate tanks. Upon excavation, only 10 gallons or less of condensate spilled into the hydrovac hole before the line was taken out of service. However, it was determined that ground around the pipe was saturated with natural gas condensate of an unknown volume.

A DEQ inspector visited the site twice shortly after the incident was reported and noted that a cleanup plan was in place. The next visit was two years later, in the summer of 2017.  Over the next two years, there were several webex meetings between the DEQ and the company. But the line on the reports labeled Updated Volume was never changed.

It doesn’t appear there were any more site visits by the DEQ, until . . . well, it didn’t take long after the story went public.  On August 20, 2019, the day after Justin’s story appeared, Spill Program Manager Suess scrambled to the site , and reported:

I met with Oneok personnel on site on 8/20/2019 and again on 8/21/2019 to review remediation procedures and update other State personnel. No photos taken during any location visits due to company policy. 

Two weeks later, on September 3, the DEQ updated the report to read:

The total recovered fluid volume is 845,732 gallons (includes condensate plus groundwater).

Three days later, on September 6, the report was updated again:

As of August 30, 2019, the amount of condensate recovered is estimated at 862,735 gallons, which includes 7,811 gallons recovered during pump testing and well development; 829,975 gallons recovered from the condensate liquid recovery system; and 24,949 gallons recovered during operation of the interim soil vapor extraction system. In addition, approximately 55,579 gallons of water have been recovered during liquid condensate recovery efforts.

There have been no spill volume updates on the report since then. But the DEQ is now paying attention. Here’s the last thing on the report as of today:

Tasks that are planned for the remainder of 2019 include, but are not limited to: continuing the operation of the liquid condensate recovery system and conducting system performance assessments; continuing the operation of the interim soil vapor extraction system; beginning the construction, startup, and operation of a site-wide soil vapor extraction system, which includes the decommissioning of parts of the liquid condensate recovery system; conducting monthly fluid level measurements in monitoring wells; and collecting groundwater samples from monitoring wells.

I’ll check back in from time to time to see how they’re doing.


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