NEW TOWN, N.D. – A December oil well blowout east of here had minimal effect on Lake Sakakawea, but it was too close for comfort for those who love the lake.
“Our concern was: What if? What if that water hadn’t been ice covered? What if it was spring?” said Terry Fleck, chairman of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea. “Those of us who touch it, feel it, love it, we were worried.”
Fleck, who lives in Bismarck and has a home on the Van Hook Arm of the lake, said the incident underscored the need for a plan to protect Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River.
“We’ve got to protect it to the best of our ability,” Fleck said. “We need to make sure we’ve got a plan in place to take care of her.”
Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Water Quality, said the state and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together to develop a plan.
“We know it’s a critical aspect of what’s going on in North Dakota right now,” Roberts said.
Steven Way, who works with emergency response for EPA Region 8, said the plan being developed this year will include specific strategies and criteria to guide cleanup and response efforts to protect certain environments. The plan will address both Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River system.
The EPA began meeting with local, state and federal agencies last year and will continue the work this year, Way said. Field work will be conducted this summer and the final plan is expected to be ready by early 2014, although some information will be made available prior to that, Way said.
Once a plan is established, it will be key for companies and agencies to train so they can respond quickly and effectively, Roberts said.
“On a waterway like that, the faster the better, but it has to be effective,” Roberts said.
In the December incident in which an oily mist spewed from a well until crews got it under control, a “very small amount” of oil ended up spraying onto the ice-covered lake, Roberts said. The snow that contained the oil was scraped off and removed from a bay area, he said.
If the lake had not been ice-covered, Roberts said he expects that a sheen may have been on the water in the bay area, but it may not have been visible.
“I don’t know how noticeable it would have even been,” Roberts said.
Nine companies have formed the Sakakawea Area Spill Response to give members additional resources in the event of an oil spill that would affect Lake Sakakawea, said Bob Dundas, chairman of the group. The group is voluntary.
“The founding members saw the need and the importance of protecting these resources,” said Dundas, who works as environmental coordinator for Bridger Pipeline.
The organization is about a year old and has invested $325,000 in equipment that members can access in addition to the companies’ own resources. The group bought two boats for rapid response and two 28-foot spill response trailers with containment booms, oil skimmers, generators, lights and other equipment, Dundas said.
The equipment is stored in New Town, although the boats were not on the lake but in Arnegard last month to have some work done, Dundas said.
Members have held one training session with the equipment but have not had to use it on a spill, Dundas said.
“Ultimately that’s our hope is you never have to use this except for training,” Dundas said.
There is a process in place for non-members to access the equipment, Dundas said. The group is talking to additional companies about becoming involved. Initially organizers hoped to get 12 to 15 companies participating, Dundas said.
In the event of a spill, the responsibility falls to that operator, not the organization.
“SASR itself is not responsible for the spill,” Dundas said.
Todd Lindquist, U.S. Corps of Engineers Garrison Project manager, said companies that have leases on federal property are required to have spill response plans.
“I think the industry is taking a potential risk seriously and trying to be prepared in the event that something did happen,” Lindquist said.
The Corps has had training with state agencies and is working with the EPA on its plan, Lindquist said.
The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services’ state emergency operations plan includes protocols on how to respond to hazardous materials incidents, said Cecily Fong, public information officer. If an incident were too large for local agencies to handle, support from the department’s hazmat teams could be requested, she said.
‘Not if, but when’
Bismarck company Bakken Western Services, a subsidiary of Carbontec, has a product called CCD Chips that are essentially dried wood chips with a special coating that makes them repel water but adhere to oil.
The company teamed up with Double M Helicopters of Mandan to develop a plan they say would quickly and effectively respond to an oil spill on Lake Sakakawea.
Oil spreads quickly when it hits the water, particularly lighter oils such as Bakken crude, said Brett Gendreau, representative with Bakken Western Services.
“Anytime you have an oil spill on water, the most important thing is an immediate response,” said Gendreau.
But for some areas of Lake Sakakawea, it could take one to two days to mobilize cleanup activities, Gendreau said.
“It’s pretty treacherous to get anywhere,” he said.
The group proposes to store CCD Chips at key locations around the lake. In the event of a spill, helicopter pilot Monte Myers would fly to the location, pick up the chips and use a specially designed “Ecobucket” that can release up to 700 pounds of the chips at one time on the oil spill.
The chips immediately adhere to oil and contain the spill, which can be cleaned up later with skimmers, suction or nets, or contained with booms.
The group estimates it would take 105 minutes to 125 minutes to respond to a spill on Lake Sakakawea, depending on the location.
Bakken Western Services has been making presentations of their product to industry and other groups.
“We believe it’s not if it happens, it’s when it happens,” Gendreau said.
A moving target
Cleaning up an oil spill on Lake Sakakawea can be particularly challenging when it’s windy and waves reach 5 feet tall or higher, said Roberts, with the North Dakota Department of Health.
“That’s going to play havoc with people trying to put out booms or recover oil or protecting critical habitat,” Roberts said. “From that standpoint, it’s critical you do it right.”
Responding to a spill on the Missouri River would pose a different kind of challenge because the moving water makes it difficult to stay ahead of the spill and prevent it from spreading, Way said.
“Once it gets into something like the Missouri River, it has the ability to move a fairly long distance in a short period,” Way said.
The industry, along with local, state and federal agencies, all have a role to play in the event of a spill, Roberts said.
“If something happens, it’s going to be all hands on deck,” Roberts said.
Companies participating in Sakakawea Area Spill Response: