A pipeline that recently spilled more than 33,000 gallons of brine in a pasture on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation occurred on a segment of pipeline that was scheduled to be replaced.
The pipeline owned by Crestwood Midstream is made of a material called Fiberspar LinePipe, the same fiberglass-reinforced material tied to two of the largest brine spills in North Dakota history.
Three Affiliated Tribes Pipeline Authority Travis Hallam said numerous spills both on and near the reservation prompted the Tribal Business Council to no longer allow fiberglass-based materials for new pipelines that carry produced water, a waste byproduct of oil production.
“It was involved in far too many failures to be considered an acceptable material to protect us from the produced water it was transporting,” Hallam said.
Crestwood, which owns the pipeline that contaminated Lake Sakakawea in July 2014 after 1 million gallons of brine spilled near Mandaree, is replacing Fiberspar pipelines in environmentally sensitive areas on the reservation.
The recent spill, reported on Sept. 3, occurred on a pipeline segment that was scheduled to be replaced in the coming months, Hallam said.
“It strengthens our case that we don’t want fiberglass-based pipes,” Hallam said. “We want coated steel lines.”
The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources gathering pipeline regulations do not specify pipeline material.
Kevin Connors, pipeline program supervisor, said the state’s rules focus on enforcing proper installation of pipelines.
“Our initial concerns are that the (Sept. 3) spill may have been caused by the way it was installed, not necessarily the material but the actual installation of the pipe,” Connors said.
Proper installation of Fiberspar is critical, according to a 2015 pipeline study by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.
Researchers heard from industry workers that Fiberspar seemed less tolerant to incorrect installation and more easily bruised by improper handling.
“It was conveyed to the EERC team by these field personnel that a small flaw can serve as a seed for a catastrophic failure after the line is installed and buried,” the report said.
A spokesman for Fiberspar LinePipe, a division of National Oilwell Varco, said the pipeline material is safe for transporting produced water if installed according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. Improper installation is the main source of damage to the product, the company said.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to blame the product than to accept responsibility for improper installation or other improper product handling,” the spokesman said.
Lack of oversight
North Dakota did not have oversight over the construction of gathering pipelines when the Crestwood system and many other Fiberspar pipelines were installed in the Bakken.
The Three Affiliated Tribes began implementing pipeline regulations in June 2015. North Dakota’s gathering pipeline rules took effect in January.
At least 684 miles of Fiberspar pipeline are installed in North Dakota, according to the Department of Mineral Resources. However, that figure could be incomplete because the state’s rules don’t require information to be reported for gathering pipelines in service before August 2011.
About 28 miles of Fiberspar were installed in North Dakota in 2016, the department said.
A total of 2,857 miles of produced water pipelines are in the state’s database.
Companies in North Dakota have been replacing Fiberspar with other materials, Connors said.
Summit Midstream, the owner of a Fiberspar pipeline that spilled 3 million gallons of brine north of Williston in 2015, contaminating a tributary of the Missouri River, is one of the companies that has replaced Fiberspar lines. The company declined to comment.
Crestwood also declined to answer questions about Fiberspar. But in a letter submitted to the North Dakota Public Service Commision in June after questions arose about the company’s spill history, Crestwood said it’s now using a coated steel product known as FlexSteel for all new produced water pipelines.
Crestwood, which emphasized that it acquired the system and was not involved in the installation, said in the letter it plans to replace more than 40 miles of pipeline by the end of this year to reduce the risk of spills that could affect water bodies.
Representatives for FlexSteel said in a statement the company has installed more than 900 miles of pipeline in the Bakken since 2012, with more than 150 miles installed to replace existing pipelines that failed while in service. The company declined to comment about how often its product was used to replace Fiberspar.
The frequency of spills on pipelines constructed of Fiberspar is unknown because North Dakota regulators have never tracked it and public information is limited.
Under Department of Mineral Resources rules, the material of a pipeline is considered confidential information, so the material is only known if a company discloses it. Landowners can find out what material is crossing their land.
Troy Coons, chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, said the type of pipeline transporting produced water is a concern for landowners.
“Produced water is a killer to the soil. It sterilizes it,” Coons said. “When you look at the thousands of miles of pipelines and the millions of gallons of product we’re moving, we need to be using the best product available. And that needs to be looked at sooner than later.”
John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships for the EERC, said the group’s research has shown that proper installation is more important to focus on than the pipeline material.
“My own observation is that installed poorly, any product can fail,” Harju said.
Gathering pipelines in North Dakota now have significantly more inspections and oversight, with state and tribal regulators both overseeing pipelines at Fort Berthold.
Regulators credit pipeline monitoring on the system owned by Crestwood with preventing the spill volume from becoming even larger in the Sept. 3 incident. The company said it detected the leak within 20 minutes.
“Their detection system worked,” Connors said. “It notified them of the leak and they sent out their personnel in the middle of the night to shut in valves and to isolate the line.”
The 791-barrel spill contaminated about 0.35 acres of pasture land in McKenzie County, with the spill staying on the pipeline right-of-way. It did not contaminate any water sources.
“Even though that is a large volume, it is a large spill, we’re fortunate it wasn’t a more impactful spill like we’ve seen in the past,” Hallam said.
Pipelines that fail now have to pass a pressure test to verify the integrity of the pipeline before returning to service.
After the Sept. 3 spill, regulators discovered another weakness in the Crestwood pipeline when it failed to pass the required pressure test. Further investigation revealed a large rock buried underground against the pipeline that had caused it to fail, Connors said. Under current state rules, rocks larger than 2 inches in diameter are not allowed in the pipeline trench, but that rule wasn’t in place when the pipeline was installed.
The pipeline system has since passed an integrity test, regulators said.
Crestwood also reported another pipeline spill on Sept. 10 on the reservation. In that case, Crestwood’s contractor, Boyd and Co., accidentally struck a pipeline that was temporarily out of service, causing a spill of 70 barrels of produced water, Connors said.
Crestwood Equity Partners said in a statement it is working to clean up both spills and return the land to its natural state.
“Crestwood is committed to safe, compliant, sustainable operations,” the company said.
Hallam said tribal officials will continue to be proactive by working with Crestwood to upgrade other segments of its pipeline system. Hallam said he has seen the number of pipeline spills cut in half since the tribe began enforcing its new rules, and the volume of spills reduce by 99 percent.
“As far as the state and the tribe, we have a common goal, and that's responsible development,” Hallam said.