N.D. plans website to alert public about hazardous spills
BISMARCK — After meeting with North Dakota legislators Thursday, a state Department of Health official said more transparency about hazardous spills is on the way.
During a meeting at the state Capitol in Bismarck, Dave Glatt told members of the Legislature’s Energy Transmission and Development Committee that a new website aimed at alerting the public about hazardous leaks and oil spills — like the 20,000-gallon release discovered near Tioga in September — is scheduled to go online, likely sometime this month.
“Any spill in the state that has the potential to impact water in the state has to be reported,” said Glatt, the department’s environmental health chief. “There’s a state rule that says they have to be reported in a timely manner, which we interpret to be within 24 hours of when the event is discovered. We will be putting that information up on a website, and that includes not only oil and gas activities, but also agricultural spills and industrial spills.”
Glatt said the website should be up and running within a month and that visitors will be able to track spills as far back as the 1970s. News of the website comes after the Tioga spill — which occurred when a Tesoro Corp. pipeline was broken in Williams County — made national news and caused a public backlash because the spill was only reported after a farmer detected a petroleum-based smell coming from his wheat field.
Glatt said decision-makers in the Department of Health were considering creating an informational website even before the Tioga spill, though he added that the Tioga incident accelerated the timeline.
“Initially, people will be able to see the location, time it occurred, how much it was and, if they find a report they’d like to follow up on, they click on it and they’ll get the full report,” Glatt said. “These (hazardous) leaks have always been public record, but they just haven’t been on a Web page. We’ve been thinking about doing something like this simply because we have been getting so many (Freedom of Information Act) requests for spill information. Once this is online, people can search to their heart’s content about spills.”
A recent report by The Associated Press stated that North Dakota has had close to 300 pipeline spills that weren’t publically announced since January 2012, though Glatt and Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who chairs the Energy Development and Transmission Committee, said the vast majority of hazardous incidents are much smaller than the Tioga spill.
“This is a really good idea,” Wardner said. “People are really concerned. When something happens like (Tioga), there should be a place where you can go to find out whatever there is to know. But remember, this is all spills. If a farmer spills some chemicals out of a sprayer, that’s reported, too. The way it works is the state Department of Mineral Resources is responsible for any spill that occurs on an oil drilling pad. If it’s off the pad, the (Department of Health) is involved. We talked today about making sure that people can check both online, which I think would make sense.”
In an interview with the AP, Glatt said the state receives, on average, about five reports of hazardous spills every day, which are the result of mishaps in the petroleum, agricultural and transportation industries.
Also a member of the energy committee, Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, told the AP in a recent interview that she and other state Democrats planned to seek bipartisan legislation to require regulators to publicly report all oil spills and other hazardous leaks.
An attempt to reach Triplett on Thursday afternoon was unsuccessful.
Glatt said department officials have also kicked around the idea of sending out a news release when oil spills of 250 barrels or larger are reported, even if such a spill had no impact on the state’s water supply or public health.
“The vast majority of these spills are very small and are cleaned up the very same day,” Glatt said. “We get reports of a gallon of a (hazardous) material, all the way up to what happened in Tioga, but most of this is taken care within an hour or that same day.”
Though on a much smaller scale, the Department of Health spill website will come on the heels of the bug-plagued rollout of the national Affordable Care Act website, which has dominated headlines throughout the nation in recent weeks.
“We want to make sure we put this through a lot of testing to make sure there are no bugs,” Glatt said. “Once we’re comfortable with that, then we’ll go out with it. It could be as early as two weeks from (Thursday) or could be a month.”