REPRESENTATIVES FROM Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, traveled to Cambridge, Iowa, in October to present a series of $20,000 checks to emergency management departments in six counties. The money was, in part, an acknowledgement of the months of anti-pipeline protests that had taxed local agencies during construction, but it was also a nod to the possibility of environmental contamination. One of the counties had pledged to use its check to purchase “HazMat operations and decontamination training/supplies.” Less than a month later, in Cambridge, the Iowa section of the Dakota Access pipeline would experience its first spill.
According to the standards of most state environmental agencies, it was a small spill that wouldn’t require much attention from emergency managers. On November 14, “excessive vibration” caused 21 gallons of crude to leak out of a crack in a weld connection at one of the pump stations, which are situated along pipelines to keep the product moving and monitor its flow. Since the leak was contained at the site, it went unreported to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, although it did make it into a federal pipeline monitoring database.
The Dakota Access pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. The biggest was a 168-gallon leak near DAPL’s endpoint in Patoka, Illinois, on April 23. According to federal regulators, no wildlife was impacted, although soil was contaminated, requiring remediation. DAPL went into operation on June 1, along with its under-the-radar sister project, the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline, a natural gas pipeline converted to carry crude. Together, the two make up the Bakken pipeline system. ETCO leaked at least three times in 2017.
Most of the Bakken system leaks were considered minor by state and federal monitors. According to regulators, water was not impacted in any of the cases. The only spill considered “significant” by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, was a 4,998-gallon leak on the ETCO pipeline in Dyersburg, Tennessee, on June 19. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson Kim Schofinski told The Intercept that reporting the spill to the agency was not required because it was contained within the pumping station where it occurred.
The series of spills in the pipelines’ first months of operation underlines a fact that regulators and industry insiders know well: Pipelines leak.
To regulators like Bill Suess, who deals with a crude oil spill nearly every day as North Dakota’s spill investigation program manager, it’s the nature of the game. “A tanker truck rolls over and spills 7,000 gallons of crude oil, and nobody pays attention. Twenty gallons spill on DAPL, it makes world news, so it’s kind of funny,” he told The Intercept.
But Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe environmental activist who was involved in the anti-DAPL protests, noted that “accumulation of the little things is pretty significant.” LaDuke is now pushing to stop construction of the Enbridge Line 3 oil sands pipeline in Minnesota. The Line 3 project’s environmental impact statement has underlined that damages to tribal natural and cultural resources along that pipeline’s pathway are “not quantifiable” and “cannot be mitigated.” “Somebody lives there,” LaDuke said. “Maybe that somebody who lives there is a little animal; maybe that somebody who lives there is a little plant. All of those are beings.”
Lisa Dillinger, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, told The Intercept, “All of these minor issues occurred within our easement at either valve sites or pump stations and did not go beyond our workspace.” She noted that four leaks occurred before the pipeline system went into service during a testing period and were contained on a protective liner, although PHMSA notes that those incidents involved soil contamination. Three leaks occurred at pump stations after the pipeline was fully operational and were isolated to a “concrete work area,” Dillinger said.
ETP has denied responsibility for a spill that occurred on March 3 on a feeder line that transports oil from the well where it’s extracted to the main Dakota Access Pipeline. The 84-gallon leak produced “a mist that settled on top of the snow” but penetrated to the ground in a 200-square-foot area, where contaminated soil and snow were removed by a vacuum truck. Caliber Midstream, the company behind the feeder line, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We understand there are varying opinions on infrastructure projects,” Dillinger told The Intercept, but pipelines are the “safest and most environmentally friendly way to transport the oil and gas products we use every day.”
Anne Rolfes, head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is fighting ETP’s proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline, said the company’s argument about safety is unproven. “The company has an accident problem,” she said, adding that state agencies’ view of the spills as minor “just shows how problematic our so-called regulatory system is.”