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Pipeline company didn’t use remote sensors before leak

A worker takes soil borings near Blacktail Creek near Williston, N.D., to test for contamination. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service1 / 3
More than 15 interceptor trenches along Blacktail Creek capture groundwater that was contaminated by a pipeline spill before it can enter the creek. The contaminated water is pumped into tanks for disposal. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service2 / 3
Fences secure the area where a Meadowlark Midstream pipeline rupture occurred north of Williston near Blacktail Creek. A section of pipe between the two stakes was removed for analysis. The rupture was discovered Jan. 6. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service3 / 3

WILLISTON, N.D. – The pipeline that ruptured and spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater, contaminating a nearby creek and two rivers near Williston, could have been monitored remotely but the system wasn’t turned on, a regulator said last week.

Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream, relied on checking meters by hand rather than a more sophisticated system that had been installed, said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.

The investigation into the spill is still ongoing, but Helms estimates the pipeline was leaking for more than 12 days before the rupture was discovered Jan. 6.

By being allowed to leak for so long, the spill significantly contaminated groundwater near Blacktail Creek, and a North Dakota Department of Health official says the cleanup will take at least five years.

“I think five years would be very optimistic,” said Dave Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section. “Ten years, there still may be talk about this.”

Ron Sylte, who owns the land where the spill happened, said pipelines should require greater monitoring.

“Common business practice is if you put something in on one end and it doesn’t come out the other end, you’ve got a problem. You should be able to monitor it that way,” Sylte said. “Somebody dropped the ball.”

Meadowlark Midstream said in a statement the pipeline that ruptured met all requirements of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which began regulating about 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines last year.

Monitoring

The pipeline that ruptured north of Williston transported produced water, the briny waste product that comes to the surface along with oil and gas, from 40 well pads to a saltwater disposal well. The company also operates produced water pipelines in two other nearby segments that were shut down after the rupture was discovered.

The pipelines had flow meters and the capability of being monitored by supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, a remote system to gather data from the meters, Helms said.

Why the company wasn’t using the SCADA system is part of the Department of Mineral Resources investigation.

“They had to drive out to the site, read the number on the meter, and then go site to site, read the numbers and sit down with a computer and add them up to try to see if there were differences that indicated a leak,” Helms said.

In addition, the company performed monthly flyover inspections. A flyover Dec. 30 did not detect evidence of a pipeline rupture.

The state Industrial Commission does not require gathering pipelines to have meters or monitoring systems. State legislation being proposed would strengthen requirements for pipeline monitoring.

Before regulators will allow Meadowlark Midstream to resume operating these produced water lines, they are requiring the use of SCADA, Helms said.

“We want real-time pressure readings, meter readings and temperature readings in their control room when they start up again,” Helms said.

In addition to the pipeline that ruptured, regulators are especially focused on making sure a pipeline that crosses Blacktail Creek upstream of Blacktail Dam has a better monitoring system, Helms said.

Investigation

The Department of Mineral Resources is interviewing landowners, former contractors, employees of oil and gas operators, disposal well operators and pipeline operators in the area to investigate the timeline of the pipeline leak, Helms said.

“When did it happen, when did it start and when could it, should it have been detected?” Helms said.

The investigation will look at lab analysis of the ruptured pipeline, engineering drawings of the pipeline and whether the pipe was installed per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The composite material used to make the pipeline also is being studied, particularly because the pipeline was six months old when it ruptured. Helms said state regulators know of only three places the material, called FiberSpar LinePipe, is used in North Dakota, however it was only last year that reporting pipeline material and other information became a requirement. The manufacturer says it has thousands of miles of the pipeline material installed, primarily in Texas, Helms said.

Meadowlark Midstream said in a statement that the pipeline was installed with certified FiberSpar experts and monitored by third-party inspectors.

“Extensive testing is being conducted to understand why and how the rupture occurred,” the company said.

Summit Midstream operates crude oil and natural gas pipelines around the country, but only operates produced water pipelines in North Dakota. The company has 850 miles of pipeline in North Dakota and has invested $800 million in the state since 2013.

Cleanup

The pipeline rupture released an estimated 70,000 barrels of produced water, or nearly 3 million gallons, the largest spill of its kind in North Dakota. The brine, which can also contain oil, hydraulic fracturing fluid and other chemical compounds, is more difficult to clean up than oil and can have devastating impacts to the environment.

The levels of chloride and ammonia detected at the rupture site were “acutely toxic” to fish, Glatt of the state health department has said, but a detailed biological assessment won’t be taken until the ice melts. The contamination, which included an estimated 2,520 gallons of oil, reached the Little Muddy River and the Missouri River after contaminating Blacktail Creek.

The levels of chloride detected downstream have reduced significantly as a result of the containment and cleanup operations, Glatt said. The main concern now is groundwater that has been contaminated around the creek.

“We need to cut that off from getting into the creek,” Glatt said.

The company, working with environmental contractor Stantec, has more than 15 interceptor trenches along the creek to capture contaminated groundwater so it can be hauled away for disposal.

Contaminated groundwater is still being removed from a 2006 pipeline spill into Charbonneau Creek, which flows into the Yellowstone River in northwestern North Dakota. That spill involved about 1 million gallons of produced water, or one-third the size of the more recent spill.

“Anytime groundwater is contaminated, you’re looking at a minimum of five years,” Glatt said of the remediation.

Charbonneau Creek rebounded fairly quickly after the spill, Glatt said.

“These creeks typically are used to feast or famine where they have droughts and floods. Their aquatic community is used to that. They have a resiliency where they can rebound fairly quickly,” he said. “We’re hopeful that’ll be the case here, but we really won’t know until that (biological) assessment is done.”

Summit Midstream CEO Steve Newby said in a statement the company is committed to North Dakota and the cleanup of the site.

“We are making significant progress in these efforts, and remain fully engaged in the important work of addressing the impacted land and waterways as quickly as possible,” Newby said.

The state health department, together with the Environmental Protection Agency, plans to take enforcement action against the company, Glatt said. The Department of Mineral Resources also plans to issue its own penalty, Helms said.

Meadowlark Midstream also is proposing a crude oil pipeline in Divide and Burke counties in northwest North Dakota and will go before the Public Service Commission on March 30 for a public hearing.

Chairman Brian Kalk said any company that has had a pipeline spill will face greater scrutiny about what’s being done to prevent another incident.

“Hopefully, they have some better details as to why things happened,” Kalk said.

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