WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — The last time the company responsible for the state’s largest saltwater spill had a project before the Public Service Commission, they faced substantial criticism from the Laborer’s International Union of North America. This time however, as Summit Midstream Partners’ subsidiary Epping Transmission Company sought to build a 3.2-mile oil pipeline that will connect with the Dakota Access terminal in Epping, they drew praise from that same entity.
Evan Whiteford, testifying at the Public Service Commission hearing for the project, Nov. 22, in Williston, said he believes the company has learned from their mistakes and deserves another chance.
“We have had some history with them,” Whiteford said. “They’ve had their ups and downs and leaps and falls. Everyone knows about the big saltwater leak in the Little Muddy system.”
That spill leaked an estimated 75,000 barrels of saltwater into the Little Muddy and nearly made it into the Missouri River. Federal agencies tested the water and found that it had been stopped just in time, the Williston Herald (http://bit.ly/2fF1ZWw ) reported. The pipeline, it was later discovered, had leaked for several weeks and perhaps months before being discovered.
A subsequent leak a year later in the same vicinity was discovered much more quickly, thanks to new monitoring systems the company put in place. Zak Covar, vice president of health, safety and regulatory affairs for the family of companies, said the rapidity of response demonstrated that the company’s new policies are working. The spill in that case was minimal, Covar testified.
Kevin Pranis, with the Laborer’s Union, said in an interview after the hearing that the adoption of a responsible contractor policy by Summit Midstream Partners was a key factor in the union’s decision to testify in favor of the Epping Transmission project. Pranis believes the company’s policy would be a good roadmap for many other companies in the Bakken.
“A lot of it is frankly ground-breaking in terms of laying out the specifics of what a contractor is required to do,” he said. “It sets some clear, specific standards and expectations for contractors and really spells everything out. You are not left to wonder what will be in the contract between pipeline company and contractor.”
Specifics on safety training, the type of equipment that must be in service and the transparency expected on reporting incidences are among items the policy spells out.
“These things seem obvious,” Pranis said, “but you’d be amazed how many times we witness or interview workers and the realities are opposite of what they should be.”
Pranis said a policy like this helps weed out bad contractors and makes future spills a lot less likely.
Spills were a point commissioners highlighted during the proceedings. Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak told the company they would need to file a 10-year spill history for all their pipelines nationwide, not just the ones in North Dakota.
Other homework for the company included detailing the proximity of co-located lines and providing more detail on why they require winter construction, as well as how they will assure reclamation is successful. This must include detailed information on construction plans, as well as the training and experience of the workers involved.
The company is to provide the last Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration audit to the Public Service Commission, as well as additional details on its 24-7 monitoring with its electronic Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems, and more information on how topsoil will be sourced if it is needed.
Fedorchak also suggested the company should show areas where it is going above and beyond requirements, such as taking X-ray images of all welds instead of only 10 percent of them.
“Are there ways that you can show your company’s commitment to go above and beyond to mitigate potential leaks or avoid them in the future?” she asked. “That would be helpful to know for the record.”
Fedorchak and Commissioner Randy Christmann both stressed throughout the hearing that winter construction is not preferred and repeatedly questioned its necessity, as well as the timing of the company’s application for a permit.
“Winter construction is one of the first things on the list to avoid because of challenges for topsoil separation,” Fedorchak said. “Especially in North Dakota, topsoil is precious and really thin in some places.”
The company indicated at one point it would bring in topsoil if necessary, but that, too, poses concerns, Christmann pointed out. The sourcing of the topsoil would need to be part of the company’s documentation with the Public Service Commission.
Christmann was concerned about noxious weed control for the project, since an area near the railroad crossing has some Canadian thistle. He was particularly concerned in light of winter construction, which might make it less apparent where extra precaution is needed.
Commissioners also had questions about the wetlands the line will cross. These don’t fall under Waters of the U.S. since they are temporary and have no particular connection to underground hydrology. Whiteford, however, later testified that he believes it better to bore under wetlands in general, instead of making a cut across. Commissioners suggested they’d like to see more documentation about the company’s plans for the wetlands and why cutting across would be preferred.
The proposed pipeline was moved to avoid two cultural resource areas that are intact, but goes through a historic dump that has been previously disturbed.
“Will someone be responsible for flagging those two areas off?” Fedorchak asked. “And will there be an environmental inspector on site?”
Company officials testified in the affirmative on these points.
There were also questions about the project’s timeline, given that it is to tie into Dakota Access. The line includes two .1-mile 8-inch pipelines in addition to the 3.2-mile 12-inch line, as well as some above ground meters.
Mike Smith testified that the company isn’t sure when they will start construction on the lines. It is dependent on completion of Dakota Access, which is presently stuck in the federal permitting process for a 1,000-foot section that crosses under Lake Oahe.
Fedorchak wanted to know what was driving them to winter construction given the situation with Dakota Access.
“There is no end date in the foreseeable future where there will be oil running in that pipeline,” she pointed out.
“We want our customers to be connected once it’s up and running,” Smith said. “Once the pipeline is approved they will start calling for oil to fill the tanks, so they want us to be connected as soon as DAPL is ready to go.”
Smith said many customers want access to the pipeline so they can get the best price for their product.
“They see it as a key outlet for Bakken crude,” he said, “so they can realize the highest crude price available to them in North Dakota.”
Epping Transmission is the sixth company to propose a connection to Dakota Access, for a total of seven connections in all. The other companies have already started construction on connection lines, or have permits in process of being approved for seven connections in all. Tesoro has the two connections, one of which was less than a mile so was not permitted through the Public Service Commission.