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Cleanup continues after oil pipeline spill in ND waterway

BELFIELD, N.D. — About 50 contractors and other staff were on site Thursday, Dec. 8, continuing to clean up after a pipeline spill leaked an unknown amount of oil this week into a tributary of the Little Missouri River, a company representative said.

Wendy Owen, spokeswoman for True Companies, said additional staff are expected to arrive Friday as cleanup efforts and an investigation into what caused the spill into Ash Coulee Creek continue.

Crews had recovered about 100 barrels, or 4,200 gallons, of oil as of Thursday morning with the spill contained about 2½ miles downstream from the pipeline break, said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager with the North Dakota Department of Health.

An estimate of the total volume spilled is still undetermined, with winter weather making response efforts challenging, Owen said.

The hillside where the pipeline is buried is sloughing, a factor that is part of the investigation into what may have caused the pipeline break, Suess said.

Crews need to do a geotechnical evaluation of the hillside to determine the safety before further investigation of the hillside, Suess said.

Officials from the state health department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the state Oil and Gas Division have been on scene investigating. The spill was discovered Monday morning by a landowner about 16 miles northwest of Belfield.

Cold temperatures were freezing the creek, which is beneficial because it prevents the oil from migrating, but also challenging because crews need the creek open to skim oil off the water, Suess said.

The 6-inch crude oil pipeline owned by Belle Fourche Pipeline, part of True Companies of Wyoming, went into service in the 1980s and was acquired by the company in the 1990s, Owen said. The segment of pipeline was shut down after the incident.

Suess noted that True Companies, which also owns Bridger Pipeline that spilled 30,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in January 2015, has experience cleaning up spills from frozen waterways.

The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota earlier this week urged state regulators to force the company to "clean up its act," citing True's 2015 spill as well as other environmental incidents.

Because the spill affected a waterway, the health department anticipates the company will face a fine for the incident, but the initial focus is getting the spill cleaned up, Suess said.

"There will definitely be an enforcement action," Suess said. "As to how much, that's going to take time."

The pipeline is a gathering line, which also brings it under the jurisdiction of the North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division, said spokeswoman Alison Ritter.