Three years and three months later, a massive oil spill in North Dakota still isn’t fully cleaned up. On top of that, the company responsible has yet to set a completion date.
Though crews have been working around the clock to deal with the Tesoro Corp. pipeline break, which happened in a wheat field in September 2013, less than a third of the 840,000 gallons that spilled ended up recovered — or ever will be, North Dakota Health Department environmental scientist Bill Suess said.
A farmer, Steve Jenkins, who’d smelled the crude oil for days, discovered the spill in his northwestern North Dakota field near Tioga — his combines’ tires were covered in it.
While the nearest home was a half-mile away and the state said no water sources ended up contaminated and no wildlife hurt, one of the largest onshore oil spills recorded in the U.S. serves for some as a cautionary example, especially given a recent pipeline break about 150 miles south and ongoing debates over the four-state Dakota Access pipeline.
This month’s pipeline break in Belfield, which gushed 176,000 gallons of oil into a creek that feeds into the Little Missouri River, a tributary of the Missouri River.
The Tesoro break and the Belfield break occurred on 6-inch steel pipelines — a part of a large network pipelines that crisscross western North Dakota’s oil patch. By comparison, the Dakota Access pipeline consists of 30-inch steel and will carry nearly 20 million gallons daily.
Texas-based Tesoro and federal regulators have said a lightning strike may have caused the 2013 rupture in the pipeline, which runs from Tioga to a rail facility outside of Columbus, near the Canadian border.
North Dakota regulators initially thought just 750 barrels of oil was involved in the spill, but later updated the amount exponentially. They also expanded the affected acreage from about 7 — the size of seven football fields — to about 13 acres, Suess said. The cleanup has cost Tesoro more than $49 million to date and should top out at over $60 million, according to recent filings to the state.
Tesoro spokeswoman Destin Singleton said she could not immediately confirm the numbers, and noted the cleanup completion date remains unknown. The pipeline was monitored remotely, but the company has said the spill wasn’t detected.
Crews have had to dig as deep as 50 feet to remove hundreds of thousands of tons of oil-tainted soil, Suess said. The company has now switched to special equipment that cooks hydrocarbons from crude-soaked soil in a process called thermal desorption before putting it back in place.
The Dec. 5 spill on the Belle Fourche pipeline also was discovered by a landowner. Crude oil migrated about almost 6 miles from the spill site along Ash Coulee Creek, and fouled an unknown amount of private and U.S. Forest Service land along the waterway. Seuss said it appears no oil got as far as the Little Missouri River, and no drinking water sources were threatened.
It’s not yet clear why monitoring equipment didn’t detect the leak, according to Wendy Owen, a spokeswoman for Casper, Wyoming-based True Cos., which operates the pipeline.