North Dakota weighs oil spill reporting policy

Massive leak kept quiet for 11 days in second largest producing state

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BISMARCK, N.D. -- North Dakota, the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas, recorded nearly 300 oil pipeline spills in less than two years, state documents show. None was reported to the public, officials said.

According to records obtained by The Associated Press, the pipeline spills -- many of them small -- are among some 750 "oil field incidents" that have occurred since January 2012 without public notification.

"That's news to us," said Don Morrison, director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded landowner group with more than 700 members in North Dakota.

Dennis Fewless, director of water quality for the state Health Department, said regulators are reviewing the state's policies for when to report such incidents publicly, after a massive spill was discovered last month in northwestern North Dakota by a wheat farmer. State and company officials kept it quiet for 11 days -- and only acknowledged it after a media inquiry.

For almost two weeks, no one knew about a break in a Tesoro Corp. pipeline discovered Sept. 29 in a remote area near Tioga. Officials say no water was contaminated or wildlife hurt, but the spill was one of the largest in North Dakota's history, estimated at 20,600 barrels. Oil oozed over an area the size of seven football fields.

Soon after the AP published its report Friday about the number of North Dakota spills, the Health Department announced that it is testing a website to publish information on all spills reported to the department.

North Dakota regulators, like in many other oil-producing states, are not obliged to tell the public about oil spills under state law. But in a state that is producing a million barrels a day and saw nearly 2,500 miles of new pipelines last year, many believe that the risk of spills will increase, posing a bigger threat to farmland and water.

"We're certainly looking at that now, and what would be a threshold for reporting to the public," Mr. Fewless said. Taking notice of the recent criticism, the state issued a statement Oct. 17 on an estimated seven-barrel oil spill in Divide County, which borders Canada in far northwestern North Dakota. The state also is mulling a better system to track spills in-house, from their origin to cleanup status, Mr. Fewless said.

Dave Glatt, chief of the department's environmental health section, said the website announced late Friday would likely go live in two to three weeks. He said officials are still considering how large a spill should trigger a public announcement in addition to being published on the website.

A spill-tracking system would be valuable for the public, said Louis Kuster, who raises wheat near Stanley in northwest North Dakota. Farmers and ranchers rely on land for their livelihood, so information on spills that could threaten land or water supplies "absolutely is important for us to know," he said.

North Dakota has been urging pipeline industry officials to quickly -- but safely -- expand the network to keep pace with record production in the oil patch. The state has about 17,500 miles of pipelines, including the addition last year of 2,470 miles, roughly the distance from New York City to Los Angeles.

Records obtained by the AP show that so far this year, North Dakota has recorded 139 pipeline leaks that spilled a total of 735 barrels of oil. In 2012, there were 153 pipeline leaks that spilled 495 barrels of oil, data show.


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