Representatives from Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, traveled to Cambridge, Iowa, in October to present a series of $20,000 checks to emergency management departments in six counties. The money was, in part, an acknowledgement of the months of anti-pipeline protests that had taxed local agencies during construction, but it was also a nod to the possibility of environmental contamination. One of the counties had pledged to use its check to purchase “HazMat operations and decontamination training/supplies.” Less than a month later, in Cambridge, the Iowa section of the Dakota Access pipeline would experience its first spill.
According to the standards of most state environmental agencies, it was a small spill that wouldn’t require much attention from emergency managers. On November 14, “excessive vibration” caused 21 gallons of crude to leak out of a crack in a weld connection at one of the pump stations, which are situated along pipelines to keep the product moving and monitor its flow. Since the leak was contained at the site, it went unreported to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, although it did make it into a federal pipeline monitoring database.
The Dakota Access pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. The biggest was a 168-gallon leak near DAPL’s endpoint in Patoka, Illinois, on April 23. According to federal regulators, no wildlife was impacted, although soil was contaminated, requiring remediation. DAPL went into operation on June 1, along with its under-the-radar sister project, the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline, a natural gas pipeline converted to carry crude. Together, the two make up the Bakken pipeline system. ETCO leaked at least three times in 2017.
Most of the Bakken system leaks were considered minor by state and federal monitors. According to regulators, water was not impacted in any of the cases. The only spill considered “significant” by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, was a 4,998-gallon leak on the ETCO pipeline in Dyersburg, Tennessee, on June 19. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson Kim Schofinski told The Intercept that reporting the spill to the agency was not required because it was contained within the pumping station where it occurred.
The series of spills in the pipelines’ first months of operation underlines a fact that regulators and industry insiders know well: Pipelines leak.
To regulators like Bill Suess, who deals with a crude oil spill nearly every day as North Dakota’s spill investigation program manager, it’s the nature of the game. “A tanker truck rolls over and spills 7,000 gallons of crude oil, and nobody pays attention. Twenty gallons spill on DAPL, it makes world news, so it’s kind of funny,” he told The Intercept.
But Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe environmental activist who was involved in the anti-DAPL protests, noted that “accumulation of the little things is pretty significant.” LaDuke is now pushing to stop construction of the Enbridge Line 3 oil sands pipeline in Minnesota. The Line 3 project’s environmental impact statement has underlined that damages to tribal natural and cultural resources along that pipeline’s pathway are “not quantifiable” and “cannot be mitigated.” “Somebody lives there,” LaDuke said. “Maybe that somebody who lives there is a little animal; maybe that somebody who lives there is a little plant. All of those are beings.”
Lisa Dillinger, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, told The Intercept, “All of these minor issues occurred within our easement at either valve sites or pump stations and did not go beyond our workspace.” She noted that four leaks occurred before the pipeline system went into service during a testing period and were contained on a protective liner, although PHMSA notes that those incidents involved soil contamination. Three leaks occurred at pump stations after the pipeline was fully operational and were isolated to a “concrete work area,” Dillinger said.
ETP has denied responsibility for a spill that occurred on March 3 on a feeder line that transports oil from the well where it’s extracted to the main Dakota Access Pipeline. The 84-gallon leak produced “a mist that settled on top of the snow” but penetrated to the ground in a 200-square-foot area, where contaminated soil and snow were removed by a vacuum truck. Caliber Midstream, the company behind the feeder line, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We understand there are varying opinions on infrastructure projects,” Dillinger told The Intercept, but pipelines are the “safest and most environmentally friendly way to transport the oil and gas products we use every day.”
Anne Rolfes, head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is fighting ETP’s proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline, said the company’s argument about safety is unproven. “The company has an accident problem,” she said, adding that state agencies’ view of the spills as minor “just shows how problematic our so-called regulatory system is.”
Beyond the Bakken system, spills of clay-based drilling fluid on two of ETP’s newest projects have drawn attention before oil even entered the pipelines.
In Pennsylvania, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners via its subsidiary Sunoco, was shut down by regulators last Wednesday after Sunoco repeatedly drilled under waterways without permits. The 350-mile pipeline would carry ethane, butane, and propane from the Marcellus Shale fracking area to an export facility near Philadelphia. Suspension of construction “is necessary to correct the egregious and willful violations” by Sunoco, said the shutdown order issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Pennsylvania regulators documented more than 100 spills of drilling fluid, ranging in size from 1 gallon to 160,000 gallons, entering creeks, lakes, wetlands, and fields since May. In at least two separate incidents, the fluid entered private wells, clouding drinking water and requiring locals to switch to Sunoco-provided bottled water.
According to Neil Shader, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, lubricating drilling fluid is expected to leak when pipeline builders bore under streams. When a pipeline crosses a waterway, builders can either divert the water flow and build a big trench into which the pipeline is buried, or they can drill under the stream using a method called horizontal directional drilling. Both techniques can be environmentally disruptive, but they have distinct challenges — horizontal directional drilling, for example, requires gallons of so-called drilling mud, typically a mix of bentonite clay and water, to be pumped into the ground as the drilling takes place.
According to Shader, pressure causes the drilling fluid to look for pathways of escape, which is how leaks happen. Shader stressed that the fluid is required to be nontoxic, although, he added, “I’d imagine it doesn’t taste very good.”
Because of the risk, permits are required in advance of drilling. In Pennsylvania, Sunoco repeatedly failed to get permits before boring under tributaries to state-designated wild trout streams, which require special protection.
“Even though it’s nontoxic, there can still be environmental impacts,” Shader said of the drilling fluid. “A lot of the bugs and other macro-invertebrates that fish feed on thrive in a loose, gravelly stream bed. If you then cover that with mud, it covers up their habitat.”
The department demanded documentation of each instance Sunoco had installed a section of the Mariner East 2 pipeline under a wild trout stream and an explanation of the failures that led to permit violations, as well a plan as to how the company would conduct its construction moving forward. Additionally, the department has called for the company to address all alleged impacts to water wells in the Silver Spring Township, where wells were contaminated by unpermitted drilling, including restoration or replacement of the water supply and reimbursement for any costs.
“We are working with the DEP to resolve all issues connected with our environmental permits and look forward to promptly returning to work on this important pipeline project,” ETP spokesperson Dillinger told The Intercept. She added that construction of Mariner East 2 was 91 percent complete, and horizontal directional drilling was 62 percent finished.
Energy Transfer Partners is also behind the 700-mile natural gas pipeline Rover, which last spring spilled 2 million gallons of drilling mud into an Ohio wetland, which “coated the area with a layer of mud and impacted water quality.” Regulators found traces of diesel fuel in samples taken from the spill. Shader said that diesel contamination of drilling fluid is “incredibly unusual.” An analysis by Bloomberg in August found that Rover had “racked up more environmental violations than other major interstate natural gas pipelines built in the last two years.”
In November, Ohio’s attorney general sued ETP’s Rover Pipeline LLC for its environmental violations and unpermitted activity after the company refused to pay $2.3 million in fines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission forced the company to halt Rover construction for several months after the massive spill, although it was allowed to restart in September.
Elise Gerhart, whose family land in the pathway of Mariner East 2 is home to the anti-pipeline Camp White Pine, told The Intercept that she believes the ME2 project’s suspension was largely a product of community organizing along the pipeline. However, she’s skeptical that it will result in meaningful changes to Sunoco’s construction practices. “It seems like a false thing to me, like when Obama supposedly halted the Dakota Access pipeline.” In December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under President Barack Obama denied ETP a permit to drill underneath Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River system, and ordered an environmental impact statement for the project. However, Donald Trump had already been elected to the presidency, and within his first days in office, he issued an order to expedite permitting. The pipeline was installed under the lake soon afterward.
Ultimately, it’s big accidents like the November 16 spill on TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline, when 210,000 gallons of crude spilled onto farmland in Amherst, South Dakota, that regulators and pipeline opponents worry most about. Keystone’s proposed sister project, the Keystone XL pipeline, launched the national anti-pipeline movement.
Since the November spill, massive truckloads of contaminated soil have been hauled away. According to a filing with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, groundwater was impacted 6 feet below the surface, although TransCanada reported that testing of two local drinking water wells showed contamination below Environmental Protection Agency safety levels. The pipeline restarted operations less than two weeks after the spill.