The company responsible for a recent oil spill into the Yellowstone River has another incident on its record: More than 176,000 gallons of crude have leaked mostly into the Ash Coulee Creek from a pipeline breach roughly 150 miles west of where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and allies have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
True Companies, the Wyoming-based owner of both pipelines, has admitted that supposed state-of-the-art electronic instrumentation failed to detect the 4,200-barrel spill out of the Belle Fourche pipeline. The line was shut down when the leak was detected on December 5 by a local landowner, and has yet to reopen. True Companies’ subsidiary Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. operates the pipeline. About 130,200 gallons entered the creek, and 46,200 gallons leaked into a hillside, the North Dakota Department of Health told Forum News Service on December 12.
Though the creek empties into the Little Missouri River, an environmental scientist at the North Dakota Health Department told AP that the oil had not reached the larger waterway. It did, however, contaminate some private land and U.S. Forest Service territory. The creek froze over soon after the spill, and much of the oil is trapped below the ice.
The mostly-underground, six-inch-diameter Belle Fourche pipeline typically carries 1,000 barrels of oil hourly, or 24,000 barrels per day, a True Cos. spokesperson told Indian Country Media Network. Of the 4,200 total barrels spilled, “we have recovered 1,256 barrels,” spokesperson Wendy Owen said. There are 136 True Cos. employees on the ground working on oil recovery and environmental cleanup, she said, plus a variety of federal and state authorities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the state health department.
“However as you can imagine it is brutally cold out there,” Owen said. “And so there’s a lot of safety and security issues related to the responders that really is our number one priority.”
However, the weather’s upside was that the spill is contained because everything is frozen, “so the oil’s not going anywhere,” she said. “So keeping everybody safe and warm is the priority. That is slowing down cleanup, but it’s still going forward.”
About 150 miles east of the spill, the water protectors at Standing Rock are pushing back against Energy Transfer partners over fears of just such a breach. The 30-inch-diameter DAPL would carry up to 500,000 barrels per day and go underneath Lake Oahe, a reservoir along the Missouri River, a system whose drinking water serves millions of people.
Bill Suess, the North Dakota Health Department’s spill investigation program manager, told Forum News Service that investigation into the Belle Fourche rupture’s cause has been hampered because the pipeline is buried in a hill that is slumping and is thus too unstable to probe.
“Whether the slumping contributed to the break or the break contributed to the slumping, we don’t know yet,” he told Forum News.
True Companies is known for its spill record, with 36 spills of a total 320,000 gallons of petroleum products leaching into the environment since 2006, according to the Associated Press.
One of its most notorious, a January 2015 leakage of the Poplar pipeline into the Yellowstone River in Montana, let loose 50,000 gallons of crude into the waterway. At the time, cleanup efforts were hampered by winter weather, and the same is holding true on the current incident, Owen said.
The pipeline, built in the 1980s, runs above ground at its crossing point for the creek, AP said. True Cos. acknowledged that the pipeline’s aging infrastructure could have played a role.
“We are investigating why the monitoring system did not detect the spill,” Owen said, adding that oil does not routinely flow constantly through the pipeline. “We believe that because there was an intermittent flow that it masked the leak.”
She said there was no timeline for cleanup completion or cause.
“We have several theories but nothing definitive,” she said of the leak’s cause, adding of a cleanup timeline, “No. The weather is such a variable.”