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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

North Dakota Pipeline Spills Over 1 Million Gallons Of Salty Wastewater Near Lake

Karolin Rockvoy
Dead grass shows where saltwater has leaked out from an underground pipeline spill outside Mandaree, North Dakota.

A leaky pipeline has spilled about 1 million gallons of saltwater near a North Dakota reservoir that supplies drinking water to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The pipeline, owned by the Texas-based Crestwood Midstream Partners, runs along the shore of Bear Den Bay on Lake Sakakwea, a reservoir on the Missouri River.

Karolin Rockvoy, an emergency manager for McKenzie County, visited the site of the spill and described a wide strip of dead grass and shrubs running downhill.

“You can’t really see the salt, but you know what salt water does to the vegetation," she said. "It’s actually kind of worse than oil because it sterilizes the ground.”

A spokesman for Crestwood says the spill began over the Fourth of July weekend and wasn't detected until Tuesday morning, when workers noticed lower-than-normal flows from the pipeline. North Dakota doesn’t require oil companies to monitor saltwater pipelines for leaks, but a spokesman for the Department of Mineral Resources said companies can do voluntary inspections. A bill that would have required mandatory monitoring failed in the state legislature last session.

Saltwater is a byproduct of drillingthat comes up with oil.  (As KUNC has reported in the past, it is sometimes radioactive, often contains dangerous chemicals, and its disposal has been linked to earthquakes.) Around the Bakken shale formation, trucks and pipelines like Crestwood's carry the oil and saltwater mix to disposal sites. Then the oil is stripped out and most of the briney water is injected back underground.

Because the spill happened on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, the tribal government and the Environmental Protection Agency are responsible for clean-up.

On Wednesday, tribal council member Ken Hall went and checked out the spill for himself by boat and helicopter.

“I want to assure my community residents that I’m out here making sure our water is not contaminated," he told tribal members in a video on his Facebook page.

Although the saltwater leached through the soil into Bear Den Bay, tribal officials say they are keeping it from spreading into the main body of Lake Sakakawea. They’re now using vacuum pumps to suck up the saltwater. Still, the tribe closed a drinking water intake near the town of Mandaree just to be safe. And--despite ensuring the water is safe-- council member Hall is offering free bottled water to residents.

The pipeline leak is one of many dramatic saltwater spills recently. On Monday, a saltwater disposal facility burned to the ground after being struck by lightning. Around 700 barrels of oil and 2800 barrels of saltwater spilled during the fire.  It’s the third saltwater disposal site to be destroyed by lightning this summer. Still, North Dakota doesn’t require companies to protect these sites from lightning strikes.

Wayde Schafer is with the Sierra Club’s Dakotah Chapter. He says the recent run of saltwater spills are yet another sign that regulations here haven’t kept pace with oil development.

“Acts of God happen all the time, but you can still take measures not to prevent the act but at least to anticipate the problems," he said.

And McKenzie County’s emergency manager, Karolin Rockvoy, said she wants everyone – bus drivers, school kids and farmers – to learn to recognize the signs of a saltwater spill. That way they won’t just be relying on companies and their voluntary inspections to detect a leak.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

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