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Tribune editorial: Oil settlement should fund spill prevention
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Tribune editorial: Oil settlement should fund spill prevention

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Summit Midstream Partners recently settled a criminal case with the federal government over a historic oil field spill north of Williston in 2014-15. The company agreed to pay $15 million in fines.

A federal judge has signed off on another settlement in a civil suit brought by the federal government and North Dakota. Under that agreement, Summit will pay $20 million, which will be split between the federal and state governments.

Summit also has promised to take steps to prevent future spills through better training, installation, operating and testing requirements. The company reports it has spent $75 million on the improvements and spill cleanup.

It all sounds like it has cost Summit a lot of money.

But the Tribune editorial board believes the company got off easy.

Summit is responsible for a spill that occurred over five months. A pipeline leaked 700,000 barrels or 29 million gallons of produced water, which is highly saturated saltwater that comes up in wells alongside oil and gas. The produced water can contain oil.

Some of the wastewater reached Blacktail Creek, which flows into the Missouri River.

Not only is Summit responsible for the spill, it failed to immediately report it, delaying the state’s response. There was damage to the environment, and the landowners have had to endure years of recovery work at the site.

There’s no excuse for not reporting the spill immediately. The company ignored early warning signs and later made incomplete or misleading statements to investigators.

Summit employees attributed the missed opportunities to find and stop the leak to the amount of “noise” going on -- referring to the company's rapid expansion at the time.

It’s important to remember that the state also had a lot of “noise” at the time as it worked to keep pace with rapid development. This Summit pipeline installation was not inspected by North Dakota regulators. The state Industrial Commission had established new rules governing gathering pipelines shortly before the project was installed, but funding for state pipeline inspectors did not become available until after the project was complete, the Department of Mineral Resources said in 2015.

That’s why the Tribune believes the money the state receives should be used for preventative steps. Most of the state’s share is expected to go to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality and the rest to the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the state Game and Fish Department.

Environmental Quality is expected to use the funds for environmental cleanup work and other projects.

The Tribune urges the state to use the money to bolster the pipeline inspection program and take stock of pipelines like Summit’s which were built either before the state began inspecting gathering lines or before the state hired inspectors. 

The state should also take a close look at pipelines like the one involved in the Summit spill that are made of Fiberspar LinePipe. The fiberglass-reinforced material can be problematic when installed incorrectly, according to a 2015 report from the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.

Spills involving Fiberspar, including a 2014 spill at Mandaree that leaked over 1 million gallons of brine, led the Tribal Business Council of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation to stop allowing fiberglass-reinforced pipelines for new construction. The state does not have this requirement.

Pipelines that pose a higher risk -- such as those near water sources or those constructed by the same contractor Summit used in the Williston project -- should be required to undergo more frequent pressure tests to detect problems sooner. 

Meanwhile, the Legislature should continue to invest in state pipeline inspection programs and add more resources as more miles of pipe are installed.

If the state can prevent future spills, it will reduce the toll on the environment. That would be a positive outcome from a possibly preventable incident that the company belatedly reported.

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