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North Dakota Oil Spills Highlight Gaps in Regulation and Oversight

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Officials are mopping up a 34,000-gallon—800-barrel—oil spill near Alexander, North Dakota about 75 miles southwest of where 865,000 gallons spilled on a farm near Tioga, ND late last year.

The March 20 breach was in a pipeline owned by Enid, Oklahoma–based Hiland Crude LLC, the Associated Press reported. It occurred when a gasket failed near a compressor station, North Dakota Water Quality Director Dennis Fewless told AP on Friday March 21.

The oil flowed into a dry drainage area that was then "diked off, contained and boomed," Fewless told AP. The cleanup was slated to take a few days, he said, and during that time they hoped it wouldn’t rain.

"If we were to get a rainstorm, you would have potential for oil to make it to water," Fewless told the newswire.

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The Alexander spill is 27 miles due south of Williston, North Dakota, and about 75 miles southwest of a far more severe one that was discovered by a wheat farmer in his fields in September 2013. In that spill, a pipeline owned by Tesoro Logistics ruptured and sent more than 865,000 gallons of oil oozing onto seven acres of a farm owned by Steven Jensen. It is among one of the largest inland oil spills in the U.S., The New York Times said.

Oil companies are coming under increased scrutiny from the federal government as a lack of leak-detection equipment and practices comes to light. Another area of concern arose when 1,400 gallons were spilled into floodwaters southwest of Williston, about halfway between Alexander and Tioga. That came from a well owned by Denver-based Zavanna LLC, and it overflowed into floodwaters near where the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers meet, according to the Associated Press on March 17. Zavanna faces potential fines, said Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist who headed up the state’s investigation into the spill, to AP.

Federal regulations focus on protecting environmentally sensitive or highly populated areas, “leaving more isolated sections of pipeline monitored less stringently,” The New York Times pointed out, citing a 2012 study by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Moreover, there are no minimum performance standards for leak detection, so there is no way of knowing how well a company’s system works.”