Health dept. to launch spill website

The North Dakota Department of Health is currently testing out designs for an online reference that would list all commercial, agricultural, and energy-related spills that get reported in the state.

Already considered public documents, the incident reports will be made more readily available at the website of the department’s Environmental Health Section (www.ndhealth.gov/ehs/).

“We felt this would be the best way to present this in a timely manner,” said Dennis Fewless, director of the EHS water quality division. Asked what prompted the departmental section’s decision to launch the page, he replied, “Well, we’re listening to you, the reporters and the public.”

The move comes after concerns were raised regarding the state’s handling of a sizable pipeline leak near Tioga discovered Sept. 29. By the time a farmer found the spill in his wheat field, a quarter-sized hole in the six-inch, Tesoro Logistics-owned line had released around 20,600 barrels of crude oil that covered the uppermost 10 feet of soil over seven acres.

Despite being among the bigger spills on land in United States history, information on the incident was not disclosed by the company or state officials until Oct. 10, to the dismay of the media and watch groups. In the kerfluffle that followed it has become clear that hundreds of such reports routinely go unpublicized.

While companies operating in North Dakota are required to report hazardous spills to the proper agencies, there is no legal requirement that the state’s health deparment notify the public of such incidents. However, Fewless explained that their policy has always been to alert residents when a spill is deemed a health threat, such as contamination of an aquifer. As the soil in that particular site had an underlaying of clay and monitoring wells drilled during containment had confirmed that the spill had no groundwater impact, it was not considered to be such a threat.

The new website will change this approach. Hopeful that it should be up sometime this week, Fewless described what information would be reported. Each listed incident would include the date a spill occured, when it was reported, and the site’s location. Also specified will be which contaminant was involved, generally crude, diesel, or saltwater separated from the oil after extraction. Whether the spill was contained or not contained on the well pad will also be noted, as would an estimate of the volume lost.

“Initially we have to depend on the company,” he said of figuring volume, a reported estimate which develops into a more accurate number as remediation continues. The company names will not be on the listing itself, but a linked .pdf document of each original report will be available that would contain that information.

In North Dakota, companies are responsible for reporting any spills during operations, as well as the process of containing them and restoring any damages. Health officials perform site inspections to ensure remediation is up to standard. The department has been trying to keep up with expanded oil production in the Bakken, getting an additional eight full-time equivalent staff members during the last legislative session.

“We’re at a point where we’re catching up,” said Fewless, though as more wells and pipeline continue to be added, it is uncertain whether the new personnel will be enough. “We’ll see. We’ll have to evaluate that on an annual basis.”

For concerned residential groups such as the Dakota Resource Council and Northwest Landowners Association, while there are a number of petroleum-related issues they lobby for, the health department’s new site will at least be a step forward for public disclosure.

“We have been asking them to do that for quite some time,” said Don Morrison, DRC’s executive director. “We’ve been concerned for quite some time about the secrecy” surrounding the industry, he said. “If you believe in good government and you want to work with the people in the state, it’s kind of a no-brainer that you don’t keep secrets from them.”

“It’s fine,” said Myron Hanson, chairman of the NWLA. “If they get reported,” he added, expressing concern that a number of smaller saltwater and well-site spills do not get reported. Industry-dubbed “produced water” is of particular concern to Hanson, a farmer in Bottineau County, as it is harder to clean up than oil and makes the soil unusable for most agricultural purposes. “You can remediate oil. Saltwater, that’s a different deal.”

Though it is up to private enterprises to report their mishaps in a timely and accurate manner, Fewless does not think the self-reporting system is prone to abuse.

“We haven’t really experienced that,” he said of noncompliance, adding that companies have so far been responsible. “It’s just part of their business. If they do not report, then there certainly would be penalties.”

This would be a monetary penalty, the reckoning of which would consider the scale of the spill, the cause, timeliness of response and general willingness to cooperate. “Each site is different,” he explained. “It’s hard to lump it all into a given decision tree.”

Additional information about the state’s spill reporting and emergency response procedures can be found at (www.ndhealth.gov/WQ/GW/spills.htm). The URL for the reporting site will be announced when it launches.

“We’ll start with this and go from there,” Fewless said of it. “One step at a time.”