A pipeline that ruptured recently in North Dakota and spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater produced during oil drilling wasn't inspected by the state before being installed, according to state regulators.
Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which oversees the state's oil and gas industry, said Wednesday that it's common for officials not to inspect such small gathering pipelines before they become operational.
North Dakota has struggled to find qualified installation inspectors because candidates are often drawn to lucrative jobs in the oil industry, Ritter said. Instead, the state has to rely on the word of companies, which are required to file an affidavit stating that they've followed state-mandated procedures when implementing the smaller pipelines, which typically run from one well pad to another.
"We wanted these positions filled a long time ago," Ritter said. "Could they have prevented something like this? I don't know, because hindsight's 20-20 and we still don't know the cause. But does it help to have the people in that position? Absolutely."
Nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater, an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production, was unleashed during the spill, the largest of North Dakota's current energy boom. Saltwater, known as brine, is much saltier than sea water and may also contain petroleum and residue from hydraulic fracturing operations. Some previous saltwater spills have taken years to clean up.
More than 4 million gallons of a mixture of fresh water, saltwater and oil have been pumped from the area affected, according to a report issued Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The saltwater leaked from the ruptured pipeline operated by Summit Midstream Partners LLC and was detected on Jan. 6 during a periodic inspection. It's unclear when the leak first started.
The spill began in Marmon, about 15 miles north of Williston, and primarily contaminated the Blacktail Creek. Saltwater also reached the bigger Little Muddy River and the Missouri River, but state environmental health officials say how much got that far is not clear.
This week, North Dakota officials said the unseasonably warm temperatures in the state's western oil fields are slowing the cleanup. State environmental health chief Dave Glatt said that melting ice and snow have overwhelmed dams and diluted the water in Blacktail Creek but that the water in the creek has hardly been contaminated by the spill.
Glatt said Wednesday that crews would be assessing the condition of the groundwater in the area and working on other cleanup efforts until they could resume removing the contaminated water in the creek.
David Ostrander, an emergency response and preparedness program director for the EPA, said the agency has one coordinator at the scene of the spill along with two members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Ostrander said the EPA has been advising the state as it works to clean up the spill, but said the agency only has authority to respond to oil spills that interfere with U.S. waterways. Saltwater spills, while hazardous, Ostrander said, are not within the legal purview of the EPA.