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Dakota Access Pipeline operator faces fine over safety violations
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Dakota Access Pipeline operator faces fine over safety violations

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The path of the Dakota Access Pipeline was still visible near its Missouri River crossing in the summer of 2020 across the rolling hills north of Cannon Ball in Morton County.

A federal agency plans to fine the operator of the multibillion-dollar Dakota Access Pipeline $93,200 over pipeline safety violations.

There is no indication that the problems identified by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration resulted in any oil leaking.

Some of the problems have to do with the physical pipeline and its monitoring systems. They include what federal officials say is the improper placement of valves for stormwater drainage on tanks at six facilities in western North Dakota, as well as a failure to correct a condition related to the line’s ability to relieve pressure, among others.

The latter issue is partly to blame for triggering more than 9,000 alarms within operator Energy Transfer’s systems since oil began flowing through Dakota Access in 2017, according to a letter the federal agency sent the company Thursday.

Additional violations identified by the agency have to do with Energy Transfer’s procedures, such as failing to adequately prepare and follow its operations and maintenance manual.

The agency identified seven violations of federal regulations in total, stemming from inspections it conducted in 2019 and communication with the company. The letter it sent Energy Transfer outlines various steps the operator needs to take to correct them.

Energy Transfer did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Tribune, but it has 30 days to reply to the agency or request a hearing on the matter.

The potential for a spill is a major concern of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation lies just downstream of where the line passes under the Missouri River.

“It’s not surprising to learn that the operator of the Dakota Access Pipeline has failed to adhere to a long list of safety regulations,” Standing Rock Vice Chairman Ira Taken Alive said in a statement. “An oil spill from this pipeline would be devastating to our drinking water supply and that of millions of people downstream, placing us all in harm’s way."

An attorney for the tribe, Jan Hasselman, called Energy Transfer "a rogue operator with a history of shoddy operations" and urged the Biden administration to shut down the line, as pipeline opponents have sought for months.

Dakota Access was the subject of a five-year legal battle brought by Native American tribes led by Standing Rock. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that the pipeline could continue operating while a new court-ordered environmental review is underway. That effectively ended the lawsuit over the line, although another challenge is likely once the study is complete.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filed a notice with the U.S. District Court on Thursday to inform the parties involved of the safety violations. It said it is considering those problems as part of the environmental review, and in its ongoing effort to determine what to do about the fact that the line is trespassing on federal property it manages.

A judge revoked a permit for the pipeline’s Missouri River crossing last year, and the Corps says it has discretion in how to respond. So far it’s stalled in making a decision, allowing the line to continue to operate, though it could order a shutdown.

The line runs from the Bakken oil patch to Illinois and can carry about half of North Dakota’s daily oil output to market. North Dakota’s oil industry and many state leaders were relieved when the judge allowed the line to keep running.

Standing Rock and the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have asked the Corps for more time to review 48,000 comments members of the public have made about the pipeline since the study began last fall. The study is slated to wrap up in March 2022.

The Corps said in its court notice that it’s “seriously considering” the tribes’ requests.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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