It would be difficult to classify the early July saltwater spill near Mandaree that leaked 24,000 barrels of brine, a byproduct of oil production, as the first wake-up call to state officials.
In 2006, an equivalent amount of saltwater leaked into and contaminated Charbonneau Creek in what has been called the state’s worst environmental disaster. In 2011 near Mohall, nearly 8,000 barrels leaked, affecting 25 acres of crop land and wetlands.
Cleanup efforts at Charbonneau Creek continue to this day, and it will likely take years to return the impacted area as close to its original state as possible. It is estimated that work at the site will likely continue for another decade.
In 2012, there were 141 saltwater pipeline leaks in North Dakota. Of those, 99 resulted in approximately 8,000 barrels of saltwater released. Roughly three-quarters of that was recovered.
In 2013, 74 pipeline leaks occurred, spilling 22,000 barrels, including 17,000 barrels from a single accident in Bowman County.
State leaders and legislators have had ample warning already that these accidents can and will occur. While not entirely preventable, steps can be taken to reduce them by putting in place more stringent rules that would include pipeline monitoring systems and more frequent inspection of pipelines.
Saltwater, a naturally occurring byproduct of oil production, is toxic and harmful to the environment. Between 10 and 30 times saltier than seawater, it ruins the crop land and pasture land it comes in contact with. It’s not difficult to grasp the seriousness of the issue.
Despite that, during the 2013 legislative session lawmakers on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly defeated a bill (86-4) that would have mandated flow meters and cutoff switches on pipelines carrying saltwater.
The oil and gas industry has been a boon to the state from a financial standpoint. Companies have prospered and new jobs have been created. Overall, it’s been a good thing.
But it can’t continue without common-sense rules and regulations in place. There’s too much at stake.
With the 2015 legislative session fast approaching, legislators need to be keenly aware that failing to act this time around isn’t an option.
It’s obvious that this particular problem, among other oil- and-gas-related issues, needs to be addressed. Lawmakers can’t be shortsighted.
Monitoring alone might not prevent future spills or detect small leaks, but identifying a significant breach earlier to mitigate its impact is critical. With more wells coming on line each day and more pipelines necessary to transport saltwater, the chances of more spills will only grow.
It’s a risk too big to ignore.