BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Water testing has shown that saltwater contamination from a massive pipeline spill in northwestern North Dakota reached the Missouri River, the state's environmental chief said Friday, adding that officials don't expect harm to wildlife or drinking water supplies because it was so diluted.
Blacktail Creek and the Little Muddy River were contaminated after nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater leaked this month from a pipeline operated by Summit Midstream Partners LLC, the largest spill of its kind in the state since the current energy boom began.
Testing showed elevated levels of chloride contamination where the Little Muddy River empties into the Missouri, but the levels diluted to within water quality standards almost immediately, said Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health's environmental health section. He said the contaminants diluted quickly because of the size of the river and its volume of water.
"We're not anticipating any public impacts, we're not anticipating any wildlife impacts," Glatt said. "But we'll continue to monitor."
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said there is no basis for questioning the state's contention. However, "It is a worry and a concern that we are just waiting for that other shoe to drop, where there will be another spill that will do harm," he said.
"I think we have to take a really good look at the cumulative effects of the number of spills that are happening," Schafer said. "At some point we're going to have a spill (in the Missouri) that does do harm. I think an ounce of prevention — we need to install the technologies that are readily available that will prevent spills rather than spending time cleaning up after."
Several communities in the region draw drinking water from the Missouri River. Glatt said Williston's intake is upstream from the contamination site, and that other intakes are many miles downstream.
If any saltwater contaminants make it that far, "it would be well within any health standards," he said.
Saltwater, or brine, is an unwanted byproduct of oil and gas production that is much saltier than seawater.
Summit Midstream Partners, which discovered and reported the spill about 15 miles north of Williston on Jan. 6, did not immediately have an update Friday on its cleanup operations. Glatt said the company was still pumping water out of Blacktail Creek and constructing earthen barriers to prevent creek water from flowing into the Little Muddy.
The spill does not threaten any public drinking water or human health, according to the Health Department. Glatt said the focus remains on assessing environmental damage and cleaning up the mess, but that state officials eventually will determine what penalties to levy against Summit Midstream Partners.
"We will collect a financial penalty," Glatt said. He did not speculate on an amount but said the company's efforts after the spill could be a mitigating factor.
"The company has been very cooperative and responsive, and we anticipate that they will continue to be," he said.
Company spokesman Jonathan Morgan declined to comment on the prospect of a fine.
In 2007, the state reached a $123,300 settlement with Zenergy Inc. over a saltwater spill of more than 1 million gallons in the Alexander area the previous year. The settlement included a civil penalty of $70,000 for violating state laws and regulations and $53,300 to cover the cost of the state's investigation. A $31,750 fine was suspended.
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