In just four days, North Dakota’s sweet, light crude from the Bakken Shale region will begin flowing through the sharply contentious Dakota Access Pipeline — the Black Snake, to Indigenous Americans of the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes — despite over a year of efforts to quash the project by an immense opposition movement, who rightly term themselves ‘water protectors.’
They have a valid point.
Only days before the well is set to be fully operational, the DAPL is already leaking. In a report released this week by the South Dakota Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, a spill was documented on April 4 in Tulare Township in Spink County. The spill occurred just 100 miles from Lake Oahe, the Sioux tribes precious water source which became the impetus for the massive protests against the pipeline.
Camps of water protectors near the banks of the Missouri River’s Lake Oahe reservoir ultimately proved ineffective in quashing the Dakota Access project — but North Dakota’s horrendous record on pipeline safety more than proves their concerns Big Oil infrastructure will inevitably sully the state’s drinking water supply legitimate.
In just the past year, the North Dakota Department of Health recorded 745 oil spills — as analyzed by KCET Environment Editor Chris Clarke — a figure tragically substantiating fears of water protectors for the future of the state’s water supply.
For perspective, for the number of pipeline incidents for the year ending on May 1, 2017, North Dakota’s oil infrastructure experienced an average of one spill every 11 hours and 45 minutes — that’s one leak, contaminating the planet, two times per day, every day, over the last twelve months.
“And we're not talking small leaks here. One event on the 18 May 2016 saw 400 barrels of oil (16,800 gallons) leak out in Bowman County, spreading more than 100 metres outside the refinery gates and into the surrounding environment,” Science Alert keenly notes.
“That same event saw an additional 2,500 barrels (1 million gallons) of brine leak outside the facility.”
Although leaks ranged tremendously in size, some comprising just 20-gallon dribbles, major spills managed considerable damage, when electronic alert systems — meant to notify a pipeline’s operator of unexpected changes in pressure and other factors which denote emergencies — failed or malfunctioned.
One notorious major accident occurred in Billings County, when oil spewed from the Belle Fourche Pipeline into Ash Coulee Creek in December, due to an alert system failing so miserably, five full days elapsed before the company was made aware of the leak — and only then, because a civilian happened upon the noxious spill and notified authorities.
At that point, escaping crude had snaked its way almost five-and-a-half miles from the source breach — contaminating the creek, delicate ecosystems, and pristine countryside as it belched forth without obstruction.
Now estimated to comprise some 530,000 gallons — more than threefold the original appraisal of 176,000 gallons — the Belle Fourche spill is believed one of the largest in North Dakota history.
But the state’s largest spill engulfs the aforementioned — and it, too, had been wildly underestimated on first assessment.
In December 2013, a farmer discovered crude bubbling six inches high in a remote corner of a wheat field from an underground six-inch pipeline, which had ruptured unbeknownst to operator Tesoro. Company estimates at first claimed a mere 750 barrels, or 31,499 gallons, of crude spilled from the rupture — but that had to be increased by orders of magnitude, and on readjustment, that spill comprised 20,600 barrels, or 865,199 gallons.
That embarrassing spill still isn’t entirely cleaned up, and both of those incidents — incidentally, each occurring within 200 miles of the now-vanished Dakota Access Pipeline opposition camps — poured from cracks in six-inch pipelines.
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Dakota Access — again, slated to be operational Sunday — is a 30-inch pipeline. And it runs underneath Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sole source for drinking water, and the Missouri River — the drinking water supplier of some 18 million total people downstream from the pipeline’s crossing points.
Clarke explains the ramifications of such hefty spills from pipelines, which industry leaders claim to be far safer than rail or road transport of oil and gas, and why such deceptive marketing of safety concerns could be detrimental to North Dakota and the rest of the United States,
“Less than four months after the 2013 Tesoro spill on the Jensens’ farm, a train collision near Casselton dumped the contents of 16 tank cars full of crude oil onto the ground, where the oil flowed into a culvert and caught fire. Around 11,500 barrels [482,999 gallons] of oil were spilled in that incident.
“Shipping oil by rail is undeniably risky, and communities across the country are organizing in opposition to rail oil shipments through their neighborhoods. But it’s worth noting that the December 2013 derailment near Casselton, the worst railroad oil spill in North Dakota history, did considerably less damage than two pipeline spills that have happened since.”
Not only that, but train derailments aren’t exactly a frequent occurrence — not even approaching the frequency of pipeline leaks, breaches, and spills.
In a period of almost nine years, from the beginning of 2006 through October 2014, there were 1,327 reported pipeline spills — 638 of which included the release of at least one barrel of oil, the rest, other petroleum substances or byproducts of industry, like brine or wastewater.
“That’s a pipeline oil spill every five days, on average, over nearly nine years, and 41,672 barrels [1,750,223 gallons] of oil spilled onto the North Dakota landscape,” Clarke notes. “In other words, more than two gallons of oil for every resident of North Dakota. Does it really matter whether it hits the earth all at once, or just one or two barrels at a time?”
Affirming those telling figures — and a bleak future for North Dakotans concerned for the integrity of the state’s ecosystems — a New York Times article from 2014 added,
“Over all, more than 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked or misted into the air, soil and waters of North Dakota from 2006 through early October 2014. (In addition, the oil industry reported spilling 5.2 million gallons of nontoxic substances, mostly fresh water, which can alter the environment and carry contaminants.)”
Water protectors who have carried on the fight to end this nation’s and planet’s reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources need look no further than the state where the fight exploded onto the world stage.
As shocking as these figures might be, they comprise the data from a single state — and a severely limited time period — while oil and gas spills happen every day around the planet.
One example is the 1989, 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Black crude from that spill — over 18 years ago, now — can still be found by digging an inch or two deep into the sandy shores of the sound.
But the raspberry for the worst oil accident in U.S. history must be reserved for the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which began on April 20, 2010, when a failed well spewed crude into the Gulf of Mexico and continued, unhindered, despite attempts to halt it, until the breach was officially capped on September 19.
In total, it is believed the deadly and deleterious disaster comprised 4.9 million barrels of oil — some 210 million gallons — enough, some scientists have found upon studying resultant environmental impacts, to kill off or severely impinge most life in the albeit enormous Gulf.
Fossil fuels are a finite resource, and long overdue for replacement with tenable options — if for no other reason than that the companies hawking petroleum can’t manage to adhere to the most basic of safety standards.