ND lawmakers question Tioga oil spill notification; agency says communication needs to improve
BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers questioned state officials Monday about the response to the worst oil spill since the state’s current energy boom began, with one state regulator describing it as a “breakdown and delay of notification.”
The underground pipeline break near Tioga leaked 20,600 barrels of oil into a wheat field before the farmer, Steve Jensen, discovered the spill Sept. 29 while harvesting.
Tesoro Logistics, which owns the pipeline, initially estimated the spill at 750 barrels – “not a small spill,” Dave Glatt, chief of the state Health Department’s environmental section, told the Legislature’s Energy Development and Transmission Committee on Monday.
However, the spill was contained in the field and there was no threat to water or risk of public exposure, Glatt said.
After getting permission to burn the oil on the surface for safety, Tesoro began the cleanup process. The company informed the Health Department on Tuesday, Oct. 8, that it had revised its estimate to 20,600 barrels, Glatt said.
But Gov. Jack Dalrymple didn’t learn of the spill until later in the day Wednesday, and it didn’t become public until media outlets inquired about it and reported it Thursday.
“I think everybody realizes that you jumped on this thing right away and took care of it. You made sure that it didn’t spread,” Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, the committee’s chairman, said. “The only question everybody’s asking is ‘How come it didn’t get reported sooner?’”
“We did respond following the law,” Glatt said, adding department staff was “right on top of it.”
Glatt said the Mountrail County emergency manager was notified Sept. 30, and the local fire department also was told about the burn.
“So people were engaged in this, but not to the level some people would like us to have been,” he said.
Speaking of lessons learned, Glatt said, “We need to do better getting that communication from the folks in the field up the ladder so that it can be disseminated quicker.”
“At no time was the department negligent in responding to this,” he said. “How we get that information out to the public, we’re looking at how we can do a better job of doing that, and I think we should.”
Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk said the PSC was first notified about the spill Thursday by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
“That is a little uncommon for us,” he said, adding the federal agency usually gives the PSC notification right away and the PSC has asked why it didn’t happen in this instance.
Kalk said there was no delay in the Health Department’s response to the spill.
“It was a breakdown and delay of notification,” he said.
Some committee members asked what may have caused the spill. Kalk said initial reports pointed to pipeline corrosion. Other questions were how long the pipe was leaking and why Tesoro didn’t know about it sooner. Glatt said that information hopefully will come out in the investigation. He said there was “pretty significant” pressure in the pipeline, “so it may not have been that long.”
The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division received word of the initial spill report Sept. 30, but the spill did not fall within its jurisdiction because it was not at a well site, said Maxine Herr, a spokeswoman for the department.
The department learned of the significant size of the spill Oct. 8 and Director Lynn Helms directed an inspector to the site, Herr said. Committee members did not question Helms about the spill during his presentation Monday.
Meanwhile, cleanup at the 7.5 acre site continued Monday, but rain slowed the progress, said Eric Haugstad, director of Contingency Planning and Response for Tesoro.
A St. Paul environmental consultant is developing a plan to remediate the site and is expected to report on that plan to the health department late this week or early next week, Glatt said.
“We told them we want it as soon as possible,” Glatt said.
Mike Nowatzki | Forum News Service
Reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.