« Return to this article

Know the West

Wastewater pipelines often leak in North Dakota

Breaches in pipelines that carry water away from the oilfields can have devastating consequences.


Joanne Njos noticed something was wrong with Blacktail Creek in late September. The water had turned a rusty orange. In mid-November, when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees for nearly two weeks, the creek didn’t freeze. Weeks later, Njos dipped her finger in the water and tasted it. It tasted like “pure, pure salt,” she said, “worse than table salt.” She brushed her teeth immediately.

Njos and her husband, Larry, live on a farm encircled by pumpjacks about 20 miles north of Williston, North Dakota, the heart of the Bakken oil boom. Initially they suspected that the Army Corps of Engineers, which they’d heard was fiddling with an upstream dam, was responsible for the changes in the creek rather than the oilfield. Then, on Jan. 7, a man from Summit Midstream, a pipeline company, knocked on their door. He said workers had detected a major break in a gathering line, which carries wastewater away from oil wells. Nearly 3 million gallons of salty, oily wastewater had spilled into Blacktail Creek — as much as spilled in North Dakota throughout the previous year. The incident was eclipsed in the news by the pipeline that leaked oil into Montana’s iconic Yellowstone River the same month, although this spill was as much as 100 times bigger.

Three weeks after the spill was detected, Njos walked Blacktail Creek, the sun glaring off melting snow. She pointed out a telephone pole, gnawed by beavers, and said that she and Larry used to bring logs to the creek, because they felt bad for beavers living on the treeless prairie.  “I never even thought about the spills before,” she said. “It never affected us.”

Large pipeline spills are not uncommon in North Dakota. But watchdogs say it doesn’t have to be that way. “I think everyone in the industry agrees the ultimate goal is zero incidents,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust. “But they’re not doing everything they could to (get) to zero.”


Cleanup continues in North Dakota, where 2.9 million gallons of drilling wastewater leaked from a pipeline into Blacktail Creek.
Andrew Cullen/Reuters

“Produced water” or “saltwater” is a waste product of oil production. In 2013, North Dakota’s 10,000 or so oil wells produced more than 15 billion gallons of it. Some comes from the fracking process, but some is sucked up from briny aquifers with the oil.

What’s in wastewater can vary with local geology. In North Dakota, the water is over 13 times saltier than ocean water and laced with fracking chemicals, oil and radioactive material. It gets separated from the oil and is either trucked or moved by pipeline to an injection well, where it’s pumped back underground.

Most of the time, the process works like it’s supposed to. But spills are becoming increasingly common. According to an analysis by the public media team Inside Energy, the spill rate per well was nearly twice as high in 2013 as it was in 2006, at the start of the boom. The rise seems to be a function of increased drilling and the ongoing rush to lay thousands of miles of new pipelines in a short construction season, which can result in sloppy installation practices. 

The spills are also getting larger, which worries Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck-based lawyer who represented ranchers affected by the state’s first million-gallon-plus wastewater spill, in 2006 in Charbonneau Creek, just east of the Montana border. That spill, like the recent one, was from a brand-new plastic pipeline that leaked for at least two weeks before being detected. It was caused by a failed welding job.

Afterward, it looked like someone had sprayed herbicide for miles along Charbonneau Creek, a tributary, as it happens, of the Yellowstone River. Bleached plants wilted on the bare ground. Fish died. “It was years before the cattle went back and started drinking from the creek,” Braaten said. When salty wastewater leaks directly into the soil on agricultural land, another type of common spill in North Dakota, the results can be even more devastating, sterilizing the ground for decades.

North Dakota well counts have surged; spill counts and quantities have gone up even faster. In 2006, there was one spill reported for every 11 wells; in 2013, one spill for every six wells.

Because federal regulators have no authority over rural wastewater gathering lines, it’s up to states to require inspections or monitoring. North Dakota lawmakers declined to do so in 2013, when they overwhelmingly voted down a bill that would’ve mandated flow meters and switches to isolate leaking parts of gathering lines.

Such devices wouldn’t detect the smallest leaks, they said. And while that’s true, they could at least be installed on the highest-risk pipelines, said Richard Kuprewicz of Accufacts Inc, a consulting firm that investigates pipeline breaks. “The quandary here is everyone wants a sound bite answer to a complex problem,” Kuprewicz said. “(And) some people will take advantage of that complexity to not do anything.”

State regulators did enact new construction standards for gathering lines. Companies now must document where they are, what they carry, and certify that they were built correctly. But the state doesn’t employ any pipeline inspectors. It’s tried to hire some, for $43,000 a year, but anyone with the requisite skills can double their money in the industry. So the checklists are a new form of self-policing: pieces of paper a pipeline company fills out and the state signs off on without ground-truthing.

The latest spill, combined with the recent Yellowstone River incident — the second in less than four years — might represent a tipping point. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in our department about the current spill rates,” said Lynn Helms, director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources. Gov. Jack Dalrymple echoed that sentiment, saying the recent spills “raised the question of whether there should be a higher (construction) standard when we know there is a pipeline going under a significant body of water.”

Dave Glatt, the head of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Health Division, was even more frank: “I can see where the public would say, ‘How come our state government isn’t protecting us?’” 

Oily wastewater collects at a cleanup berm on Blacktail Creek, North Dakota.
Emily Guerin/Inside Energy

This story was originally titled "Built to spill" in the print edition.