Four Oil-Related Spills Reported In North Dakota, The Latest In A Week Of Oil Mishaps

ThinkProgress | February 19, 2015 | Column by Emily Atkin

Safe to say this has not been a great week for the oil industry.

Clockwise from top: A stock image of an oil spill; a CTV screenshot of Saturday’s derailment in Ontario; the aftermath of Monday’s derailment in West Virginia; and excessive gas flaring after a refinery explosion in California on Wednesday. CREDIT: GRAPHIC BY ANDREW BREINER/IMAGES FROM AP, SHUTTERSTOCK, AND CTV SCREENSHOT

Four “significant” oil-related spills, including two that impacted wetlands, were reported by North Dakota state officials this week.

It’s the fourth time this week that a big mishap involving the North American oil industry has occurred. On Monday, a train carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil derailed and exploded in West Virginia. On Wednesday, another explosion occurred at the ExxonMobil oil refinery in Torrance, California, injuring at least three people. And this weekend, a crude oil train derailed, spilled, and caught fire in Ontario, Canada.

The spills in North Dakota began on Monday and spanned into Wednesday. The first was a double-incident reported by Hess Corp., which said that approximately 42,000 gallons of oil industry wastewater was released from two of its well sites in Williams County, located about three miles apart. Both spills occurred because of opened valves, and the company believes their operations may have been vandalized. “We’re calling this suspicious activity,” Hess spokesman John Roper told the Grand Forks Herald.

Both of the waste spills were said to have impacted wetlands, though the extent of the damage has not been reported. The type of wastewater released is called produced water, which peer-reviewed research has shown to contain elevated concentrations of bromide, which can promote the formation of toxic disinfection byproducts. The North Dakota Department of Health said the company is currently using vacuum trucks to suck up the waste.

The next spill, reported Tuesday, was a 1,260-gallon oil spill in McKenzie County. In that incident, the oil overflowed from a truck and spilled into an oxbow of Charbonneau Creek, which is a a tributary of the Yellowstone River. The fourth incident saw 400 gallons of diesel fuel spill from an open valve of a truck and into an unnamed tributary of Lonesome Creek.

North Dakota is one of the states at the center of the U.S. oil boom. NPR reports that in 2013, the state produced more than 13 billion gallons of oil and nearly 15 billion gallons of wastewater. That record production could actually drop this year as global oil prices fall and big Bakken shale producers signal they are cutting unconventional production.

But even with production falling, the state has seen its fair share of mishaps. In 2013, North Dakota experienced the largest inland oil pipeline spill in the U.S., a rupture that saw 865,000 gallons of crude sunk into farmland. Before February, already three oil-related spill incidents had been reported in 2015, including a 3 million gallon release of produced water and oil, cleanup of which is ongoing.

The state has also been accused of covering up many of its spills. An investigation by the Associated Press in October 2013 showed that nearly 300 oil pipeline spills recorded by state officials in a less than two-year period were not disclosed to the public.

North Dakota officials have maintained that those spills are not publicly reported because they are small, contained, and not significant from an environmental or public health standpoint. The practice of not disclosing those types of spills is ongoing — indeed, the four incidents this week were the only ones publicly reported, but according to the Bismark Tribune, the state has actually had to respond to 28 separate spill incidents this week.

This week may have seemed particularly bad for the oil industry, but it’s not the first span of time this year where a lot of mishaps have occurred. In January, there were at least four major incidents at U.S. oil pipelines, including a gas pipeline explosion in Brooke County, West Virginia; a pipeline spill that saw up to 50,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River; and a gas pipeline explosion in Mississippi.

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