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Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published October 31 2013

North Dakota plans website for tracking hazardous spills

BISMARCK – After meeting with North Dakota legislators Thursday, a state Department of Health official said more transparency about hazardous spills is on the way.

Dave Glatt told members of the Legislature’s Energy Transmission and Development Committee that a new website aimed at alerting the public about hazardous leaks and oil spills – like the 20,000-gallon release discovered near Tioga in September – is scheduled to go online, likely sometime this month.

“Any spill in the state that has the potential to impact water in the state has to be reported,” said Glatt, the department’s environmental health chief. “There’s a state rule that says they have to be reported in a timely manner, which we interpret to be within 24 hours of when the event is discovered.”

Glatt said the website would include not only oil- and gas-related spills, but also agricultural and industrial spills. He said the website will track spills as far back as the 1970s.

The website comes after the Tioga spill, which occurred when a Tesoro Corp. pipeline was broken in Williams County, made national news and caused a public backlash because it was only reported after a farmer detected a petroleum smell on his wheat field.

Glatt said decision-makers in the Department of Health were considering creating the website even before the Tioga incident, though the spill accelerated the timeline.

“Initially, people will be able to see the location, time it occurred, how much it was and, if they find a report they’d like to follow up on, they click on it and they’ll get the full report,” Glatt said. “These (hazardous) leaks have always been public record, but they just haven’t been on a Web page. We’ve been thinking about doing something like this simply because we have been getting so many (Freedom of Information Act) requests for spill information.”

A recent report stated that North Dakota has had close to 300 pipeline spills that weren’t publically announced since January 2012, though Glatt and Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who chairs the Energy Development and Transmission Committee, said the vast majority of hazardous incidents are much smaller than the Tioga spill.

“This is a really good idea,” Wardner said. “People are really concerned. When something happens like (Tioga), there should be a place where you can go to find out whatever there is to know. But remember, this is all spills. If a farmer spills some chemicals out of a sprayer, that’s reported, too.”

Glatt said department officials have also kicked around the idea of sending out a news release when oil spills of 250 barrels or larger are reported, even if such a spill had no impact on the state’s water supply or public health.

“The vast majority of these spills are very small and are cleaned up the very same day,” Glatt said. “We get reports of a gallon of a (hazardous) material, all the way up to what happened in Tioga, but most of this is taken care within an hour or that same day.”