With the backing of Gov. Doug Burgum, North Dakota's top environmental regulator said Wednesday that he's considering ways to improve transparency after acknowledging a 2015 gas plant spill was much larger than initial reports suggested.
Department of Environmental Quality Director Dave Glatt floated the idea of providing annual updates about active spill responses on their website, which could give the public a better idea of the size of individual incidents.
Glatt said the volume of the gas plant leak wouldn't change how state regulators responded, but he acknowledged members of the public are interested in having more information about spills.
"It's public information, we just make it more accessible, and how do we do that?" he said.
Burgum, a Republican who signed legislation in 2017 raising the threshold for reporting oil spills on well pads, said he supported Glatt's efforts.
"We can do a better job of making sure we're updating what's easily available online so ... that people can understand the scope of what it is we're dealing with," Burgum said.
Glatt is a member of the governor's Cabinet.
The 2015 spill at Oneok's Garden Creek gas processing plant in Watford City was scrutinized by an environmental blog Monday. Though the state's initial report listed the natural gas liquid spill at only 10 gallons of "condensate" with an unknown amount saturating the ground around the pipeline, Glatt said Tuesday that more than 240,000 gallons had been cleaned up.
State and company officials said leak's nature made it hard to pin down its size, but they said it was confined to the gas plant site and didn't affect drinking water sources. It did affect groundwater, however, and Glatt said it could take another five years to clean up.
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Oneok said Tuesday the leak stemmed from "hairline cracks" in a small underground pipe. A company spokesman said they didn't know the size of the spill but were "committed" to the site's full restoration.
Glatt said in some cases it may take a couple of years for regulators to get an estimate of a spill's size — if they're ever able to do so.
"I don't want to throw out bogus numbers," he said. "But where do I feel really comfortable is when we start remediation, I can give you how much we've recovered, how big of an area was impacted and what the continuing remediation looks like."
State officials began posting spill reports online and issuing press releases about more significant incidents after facing criticism for being slow to disclose a massive 2013 oil spill near Tioga.
DeSmog, the environmental blog, cited an unnamed whistleblower who said the gas plant leak actually surpassed 11 million gallons, but Oklahoma-based Oneok said a document seeking to back that claim used "hypothetical assumptions" developed by environmental consultants. Glatt said the 11 million gallon figure was "way out of line."
Still, the episode prompted the head of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental watchdog, to call for better reporting processes. Scott Skokos, executive director of the council, welcomed news that Glatt was eyeing transparency improvements Wednesday.
"The public should all know that there's a large spill somewhere," he said. "It's good for the public and it's good for the agency so that they look like they're doing their job."
Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he hopes Environmental Quality follows through with updating spill reports.
"If the information isn't accurate, then why bother?" he said.