North Dakota Pledges Improvement to Spill Reporting Procedures

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's Health Department is pledging to provide easily accessible information on oilfield and agriculture-related spills, a move that comes after a liquid natural gas pipeline leak that was much bigger than publicly reported and could take another decade to clean up. 

According to records obtained by The Associated Press, the department logged more than 8,000 "reported releases" since 2014 but did not make public updates on a spill's severity or its cleanup status.

"We're looking at how best to get that information to the public," North Dakota Environmental Quality Chief Dave Glatt said Tuesday. "We are looking at revamping our webpage to let people search so they don't have to ask us about it."

The agency came under criticism last week for disregarding its own policy in updating the volume of a pipeline spill at a natural gas processing plant in western North Dakota.

In July 2015, Oneok Partners reported a 10-gallon (about 38 liters) spill of natural gas condensate from a pipeline at a plant near Watford City. The estimated size of the spill was never updated, even as Oneok updated the state on cleanup. In October, Oneok told the state it had recovered 240,000 gallons (about 908,000 liters) of the liquid gas.

Glatt said a report should have been made public to reflect the severity of the spill.

The larger-than-publicized spill was first reported by DeSmog, a blog dedicated to fighting climate change misinformation. It cited an unnamed person who provided a document that said the spill could be as large as 11 million gallons.

Oneok has said that estimate was just "hypothetical assumptions" done by a consultant.

Data obtained by the AP through an open records request show there have been 8,639 spills in North Dakota since 2014, and 821 of them remain open cases, meaning work continues to monitor and clean them up.

Glatt said the agency was not immediately able to say how many spills increased in volume from when they were originally reported.

"We just don't know," he said.

Wayde Schafer, spokesman for the state's Sierra Club chapter, called the state's reporting system "kind of worthless."

"The public's ability to find out about spills and track them should be user-friendly, and at this point it isn't," Schafer said. "It's really a basic goal. With public knowledge, I think companies will be a little more careful."

Regulators began reviewing the state's policies for when to publicly report such incidents after a massive spill was discovered in 2013 in northwestern North Dakota by a wheat farmer. The 840,000-gallon spill — called one of the biggest onshore spills in U.S. history — was kept quiet by state regulators for 11 days and only acknowledged after the AP asked about it.

The Health Department at that time established a website that agency officials said would allow the public to track spills from their origin to cleanup status.

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