One year ago, when more than 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) of crude oil spilled from a pipeline and soaked a wheat field in Tioga, North Dakota, the public almost never knew about it. After the spill was discovered by a lone farmer, it was not reported for nearly two weeks, and only after reporters from the The Associated Press asked about it specifically.
Now, a year later, environmentalists say North Dakota’s oil spill reporting process has improved, but that more needs to be done to prevent those types of spills from happening in the first place. In North Dakota’s Bakken shale, more than 1.2 million barrels of oil are produced every day, and spills from wells and pipelines happen frequently.
“The real lesson from this spill is that haste makes waste,” Wayde Schaffer, a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club’s North Dakota chapter, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. “With the Bakken oil boom the development is outpacing the safeguards for the environment and people’s health that need to be in place. I don’t see that lesson being taken to heart.”
By all accounts, the year-old 20,000-barrel spill — one of the largest onshore spills in U.S. history — happened by chance. Tesoro Corp., the company who owns the pipeline, told the AP that the spill was caused by a lightning strike.
The freak nature of the accident is apparently why no one knew about it until wheat farmer Steve Jensen discovered it during a harvest. To this day, the farmland is still sopped with oil, and Tesoro is still working to clean it up. “It’s a big cleanup and it’s become part of our life,” Jensen told the AP on Monday. “The ground is still saturated with oil. And they’re out there seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Tesoro has said it is committed to cleaning up the spill and “making things right.” But the fact that the company didn’t know what had happened, and that such a large release of oil into the environment took so long to be discovered and reported, sparked outrage at the time of the incident. The AP conducted an investigation after the spill, and found that nearly 300 oil spills and 750 “oil field incidents” had occurred in North Dakota since January 2012 — none of which were reported to the public.
Since then, Schaffer says things have improved. Before the spill, he said, state agencies would routinely be alerted when a spill occurred, but they didn’t always let the public know. Now, the Health Department puts out press releases about significant oil spills — an improvement, Schaffer said, but not the greatest achievement.
“It’s sort of a passive way of getting it out there,” he said. “I mean, you still have to look for it. It’d be better if they would alert the public right away, but at least the information is available now.”
North Carolina Oil and Gas Division spokesperson Ashley Ritter confirmed to ThinkProgress that the Health Department had started putting out press releases about significant oil spills since the Tesoro incident, and that her agency had begun putting out press releases about spills that happen on oil and gas well sites. The state Oil and Gas Division does not have jurisdiction over large pipelines like Tesoro’s, but does regulate smaller diameter gathering pipelines and well sites. The agency also only has jurisdiction over spills that happen on well sites themselves — if any oil reaches outside that site, the spill falls into the jurisdiction of the Health Department.
Tesoro’s pipeline is regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). But even the director of that agency has admitted that it faces extreme difficulty in enforcing their regulations. PHMSA head Jeffrey Wiese said last year that the agency has “very few tools to work with” in enforcing safety rules, and that the regulatory process surrounding pipelines is “kind of dying.”
Companies in North Dakota are required to report all their spills to whatever agency has jurisdiction over them. Those state agencies are required to put those reports into public record, but they are not required to put out press releases on their websites about every incident. “We use our best judgment,” Ritter said. “If there is a situation where we think the public needs to know about it, we let the first responders know, and the first responders will get the information out to the immediate public. But if it’s a 5-barrel spill on-site, then we’re not going to put out a press release.”
The public notification process is only one part of the story brought to light by the Tesoro spill. Since the spill, there have still been a number of contamination incidents in the state, and Schaffer says more needs to be done to stop them. Just this month, a North Dakota pipeline owned by Oasis Petroleum spilled 42,000 gallons of salty wastewater into a creek, and 300 barrels of oil and water were spilled at a well site owned by XTO Energy.
“It’s one thing to report these spills but it’s another thing to prevent them, and there hasn’t been much movement in that direction,” Schaffer said. “Oil is messy. It does contaminate the soil, and it takes a long time to clean up. And it will never be the same.”
Schaffer said there has been somewhere in the neighborhood to 1,500 to 1,600 incidents of contamination by oil, gas, and wastewater from pipelines and well sites in 2013 — most of which were small, and none of which were as big as the Tesoro incident. But what that proves to him is that pipeline infrastructure needs to be updated, more pipeline inspectors need to be on the ground, and new technologies need to be implemented to monitor both the condition of the pipelines and whether an accident has occurred.
“We don’t have those things in place, and we should,” he said. “Oil companies are making a lot of money in North Dakota, and they should be spending money to put these safeguards in place so we don’t have people’s health and safety at risk.”
For its part, Tesoro has said it could be $20 million and another year before the farm in Tioga is fully cleaned up and ready to be planted on again. But Jensen told the AP that the company is cooperating — excavating the contaminated soil, heating it until the oil is gone, and then replacing it. He told the AP he is optimistic that one day he’ll be able to farm the land again.
That’s at least some progress, but it’s not the most important thing to take from the spill, Schaffer said.
“The one year anniversary is certainly nothing to celebrate,” he said. “It’s really only a good opportunity to remind people that these spills are taking place every day, and we need to take care of this problem.”