BELFIELD, N.D. — New North Dakota pipeline rules will give state regulators greater oversight of repairs to the Belle Fourche Pipeline that spilled more than 176,000 gallons of oil this month.
Regulations that take effect Jan. 1 require companies to notify the state Oil and Gas Division if they plan to repair or replace crude oil gathering pipelines, allowing state inspectors to observe the construction process.
The rules also enable state inspectors to witness tests performed on the pipeline to check the integrity of the line before it's returned to service.
In addition, pipeline owners are now required to report to state officials the root cause of a pipeline spill, allowing regulators to look for trends and work to prevent future incidents.
"We want to be able to collect the data on the true root cause of why these pipelines are failing and look to that in future rulemaking or future regulations," said Kevin Connors, pipelines program supervisor for the Oil and Gas Division.
A landowner discovered the leaking Belle Fourche Pipeline on Dec. 5 about 16 miles northwest of Belfield. The company estimates that 4,200 barrels, or 176,400 gallons, of oil spilled, contaminating a hillside and nearly 5½ miles of Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri River.
Belle Fourche, which is part of True Companies of Wyoming, is not likely to repair the pipeline before the stronger pipeline rules take effect on Jan. 1.
The hillside where the pipeline break occurred is slumping and concerns about instability of the rugged Badlands terrain have prevented crews from accessing the area. Officials hope a geotechnical evaluation can be performed next week, said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the North Dakota Department of Health.
True Companies is focused on cleaning up the environment and investigating the cause of the pipeline break, said spokeswoman Wendy Owen. There have been no discussions so far about putting the pipeline back into service, she said. The 6-inch oil pipeline dates back to the 1980s and Belle Fourche acquired it in the 1990s.
"Until we have a good definitive answer as to why it occurred in the first place, the decision about when to put it back in service is far off," Owen said.
The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota this month urged state regulators to have stronger oversight of True Companies, citing a history of spills, safety problems and "flagrant violations" of state and federal law. The company also owns Bridger Pipeline, which had the January 2015 oil spill of more than 30,000 gallons in the Yellowstone River that contaminated the water supply for Glendive, Mont.
The labor union also has criticized a contractor that True Companies works with, Loenbro of Great Falls, Mont., which is on scene of the Belle Fourche spill.
Among the concerns the union raises is a report of "slipshod construction" on an oil pipeline owned by True Companies that parallels a carbon dioxide pipeline owned by Dakota Gasification Co.
In 2011, Dakota Gasification contacted the Public Service Commission after a cave-in left the carbon dioxide pipeline exposed in Dunn County. Dakota Gasification concluded that poor construction methods on the True Companies pipeline caused the cave-in on their parallel pipeline, PSC documents show. Loenbro was the contractor for that segment of the True Companies pipeline, the union said, citing PSC records.
Weather conditions also were identified as contributing to the pipeline exposure, The Dickinson Press reported at the time. Dakota Gasification did not file a formal complaint to the PSC.
The new pipeline rules, which the labor union supported, will provide stronger oversight and prohibit substandard construction practices, said spokesman Kevin Pranis.
"If you're going to have a contractor like Loenbro, working for an owner with a record like the True Companies', rebuilding an aging pipeline that has already failed once, and that's located in rough terrain, you want someone looking over their shoulder," Pranis said.
A representative for Loenbro did not return a call seeking comment.
Tad True, vice president of True Companies, told Forum Communications political commentator Rob Port the company "had a compliance problem" a decade ago but has improved since then.
The Oil and Gas Division has been on site of the Belle Fourche spill and will be monitoring work on the pipeline.
"If we have any concerns with this pipeline and the repair of it, we'll certainly address those with the pipeline owner," Connors said.
Even though some of the new rules don't take effect until Jan. 1, the state already has six pipeline inspectors who have been working in the field to oversee new pipeline construction and repair work, he said.
"Companies have really been working with us just to keep the inspectors in the know when they're doing work on the pipelines," Connors said.
Finding out the cause of pipeline spills should lead to reducing the frequency and severity of spills, said Troy Coons, chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, which pushed for the new regulations.
"A lot of times things weren't reported or weren't reported accurately or conclusively," Coons said. "Whatever we see as a trend in the cause of these spills, we can address that."
Companies are now required to tell state regulators the root cause of pipeline spills within 10 days after the cleanup is complete. However, major incidents can take months or years to clean up.
In addition to state regulators, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has jurisdiction over the Belle Fourche Pipeline, which the federal agency considers to be a transmission line under its definitions.
The agency's requirements vary depending on the circumstances of each incident, but generally the agency could require a test to determine the cause of the pipeline break as well as additional pressure tests or inspections before it can be put back in service.
The North Dakota Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency also are investigating and monitoring the cleanup.