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Published October 15 2013

Forum editorial: Pipeline leak spurs questions

Something has gone terribly wrong when a massive oil spill from a pressurized pipeline is discovered by a farmer who smelled petroleum wafting from his wheat field for several days. The discovery, on Sept. 29, came no more than a few weeks after the pipeline’s last inspection, which occurred sometime earlier that month, according to the company, Tesoro Logistics. What first seemed to be a relatively small spill – initially estimated at 750 barrels – was revised dramatically upward on Oct. 8 to 20,600 barrels, ranking it as one of the nation’s largest pipeline leaks in the past three years.

That’s the equivalent of about 29 rail tank cars.

It’s early in the investigations and reviews, and many questions remain unanswered. Tesoro conducts remote monitoring of its pipeline system by tracking pressure and pumping stations. It also performs aerial checks – inspections, the term Tesoro uses for the flights, is too strong a word – on a weekly basis. Those methods failed to detect what officials have said was a small hole in the underground pipeline apparently caused by corrosion.

Dave Glatt, who heads the environmental section of the North Dakota Health Department, told legislators and has written elsewhere on this page that his staff followed proper procedures in notifying all of the required agencies and officials. But the fact remains that the leak did not become public until Oct. 10, when a reporter asked officials about it. That long delay in public notification has not been explained and is not acceptable.

The public has a right to know – promptly – when spills occur. One obvious reason for prompt disclosure is the possibility of contaminated water supplies. Tesoro and public officials have said that, so far, there is no sign that the oil reached surface or groundwater. The spill, which covers an area the size of seven football fields, occurred on relatively high ground. Luckily, it appears a thick layer of clay 10 to 14 feet underground acted as a natural barrier.

It’s widely acknowledged that pipelines are the safest transport method. But they still are subject to spectacular and disastrous failures. More than 20,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines run through the state. So it’s critical that monitoring systems and inspections don’t fail.

Brian Kalk, chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, has called for a greater state role in regulating intrastate crude oil pipelines. His office has siting authority, but the federal government oversees safety. It’s an idea worth exploring, but state officials will have to demonstrate that they’re up to the job. The late public notification of the Tioga spill does not inspire confidence.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.