Democrats gather input on policy in Tioga oil spill’s wake

Patty Jensen, right, and Steve Jensen, who own land near Tioga, N.D., where a pipeline leaked 20,600 barrels of oil, attend a field hearing on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Stanley, N.D., regarding the spill. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

STANLEY, N.D. – Steve and Patty Jensen have pipelines criss-crossing their farmland north of Tioga, but it wasn’t until one leaked 20,600 barrels of oil in their wheat field that they began asking questions about who was monitoring them.

“I didn’t realize there were such lax regulations,” Patty Jensen said Wednesday before a hearing on the spill. “Honestly, I had no idea. I assumed we were being watched over. I assumed they had our back.”

The Tesoro Logistics pipeline leak the Jensens discovered Sept. 29 prompted the state’s Democratic-NPL House and Senate Caucuses to hold the field hearing in Stanley.

House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall said legislators want input as they develop public policy to better protect landowners and the environment.

John Berger, director of business development for Tesoro Logistics, told the legislative panel that the company accepts full responsibility for the spill and is working to restore the land and prevent future spills.

“We understand that an event such as this one is unacceptable and it eroded the trust of the public,” Berger said.

Dave Barrett, a representative of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, outlined the agency’s response to the spill and a safety order the agency issued to Tesoro Logistics on Oct. 31 that requires the installation of additional leak-monitoring equipment.

Throughout the nearly three-hour hearing, legislators questioned why the industry isn’t required to take more proactive measures rather than be reactive.

“If they’re a good idea, why weren’t they done before?” asked Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla. “Why do we wait for a spill and then we require these things?”

Berger said Tesoro Logistics was in the process of installing the monitoring equipment before the spill occurred and the order from PHMSA accelerated the pace of that implementation.

Tesoro Logistics has recovered about 5,000 barrels of oil so far during the cleanup process at a pace of about 20 to 30 barrels per day, Berger said. The cause of the leak remains under investigation, but a high-voltage electrical discharge is believed to be the likely cause, Berger said.

Crews installed a French drain system to capture oil throughout the winter, and a long-term remediation plan is expected to begin in the spring, he said.

PHMSA has jurisdiction over the large crude oil pipelines that carry oil to market but does not oversee smaller gathering or transfer lines that move crude oil and saltwater, a byproduct of oil development, from wells to tank sites.

Before this year’s legislative session, the state Department of Mineral Resources had minimal jurisdiction over pipelines, said Director Lynn Helms.

“In fact, I think you could say that for gathering and transfer lines, there was no regulation prior to 2013,” Helms said.

The new legislation, which is part of rules the North Dakota Industrial Commission is working to adopt, has requirements related to pipeline construction and GIS mapping.

The legislation called for a self-certification program in which companies sign sworn affidavits indicating that pipelines are being constructed according to the state’s rules, with the construction subject to unannounced spot inspections, Helms said.

The Department of Mineral Resources also can require additional safeguards for pipelines that go through sensitive areas. For example, 14 saltwater lines are required to shut down once a year for mechanical integrity tests, Helms said.

Of the state’s 2,125 saltwater pipelines, the state requires pressure detecting and monitoring for 523 of the lines, Helms said.

When asked why the state doesn’t require those measures for more pipelines, Helms said some lines are 100 feet long from one end of a location to another.

“It’s a judgment call,” Helms said.

Onstad asked whether agencies have enough staff to adequately monitor pipelines and respond to spills.

Of the 22 new positions the Department of Mineral Resources added this biennium, three will focus on pipelines, Helms said.

Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Health Section, said his agency is “hanging in there” but has some staff who work 60 to 70 hours a week. Glatt said the department is developing a website to make all spill reports public.

Troy Coons, treasurer for the Northwest Landowners Association who was active during the legislative session, said the new legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“We cannot put thousands of miles of pipelines into the ground, enough to encompass the globe, without better regulatory authority,” said Coons, who lives near Donnybrook.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, chairman of the state Industrial Commission, announced Monday he’s forming an advisory panel to research whether the state should adopt its own regulatory system on top of federal requirements.

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