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State spill website expected to launch next week

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BISMARCK — A website designed to improve public access to information about oil spills and releases of other potentially harmful liquids in North Dakota will launch next week, barring any unforeseen issues, a state health official said Friday.

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The North Dakota Department of Health began developing the website in the wake of a massive oil spill that was discovered Sept. 29 near Tioga but wasn’t publicly disclosed until Oct. 10, and only after a news reporter asked about it.

Dave Glatt, chief of the department’s environmental health section, said the website should be operational by the middle of next week.

“We’re just kind of making sure that everything works right and the format is appropriate,” he said.

The website, accessible through the department’s homepage at www.ndhealth.gov, will contain two spreadsheets: one listing spills of oil and saltwater related to the oil and gas industry, and the other covering all other types of accidental spills, including those involving agricultural chemicals and municipal waste, Glatt said.

The spreadsheets will list the spills’ location, date, quantity and whether or not the liquid was contained. Users will be able to click on an individual spill to retrieve the original report submitted to the state, Glatt said. Updated reports also will be posted.

“It’s pretty basic, but that’s kind of how it should be,” he said.

On average, the department receives four to five spill reports per day, Glatt said. The website will list spills for the last 12 months and also provide a link to a separate database containing archived spill data dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“So there’s a long history there,” he said.

Glatt said state officials had been talking for a while about creating a spill-tracking website because of the number of open records requests for such data and the “considerable” amount of staff time it was taking to address them. The rural Tioga spill, which tainted a wheat field with an estimated 20,600 barrels of oil from a leaking Tesoro Logistics pipeline, accelerated the timeline for developing the website, he said.

“It’s always been open to the public, and the information has been freely shared, but this will make it a little more accessible,” he said.

The department will continue to issue news releases on spills of a certain size or that threaten public health or water resources, a practice that began shortly after the Tioga spill. The department hasn’t settled on what size of spill will trigger a news release, Glatt said.

“We’re kind of taking them on a case-by-case basis, but we’ll be looking to hopefully land on a number here soon,” he said.

The department has received mixed input on its decision to create the spill website, but overall the comments have been more positive than negative, Glatt said.

“Obviously, the general public sees it as a good move. The more transparent you can be, the better, and we believe that,” he said.

Feedback from oil companies has been “a mixed bag,” he said.

“Some of them have been very supportive, some of them not so much,” he said. “But I think it’s just (because) of the unknown and the uncertainty. When I tell them that this information has been open to the public from day one, then they are not quite as concerned.”

Don Morrison, executive director of the environmentally conscious Dakota Resource Council, said the organization is pleased with the website being launched, saying it “has been a long time in the works.”

“We’ve struggled in the last five to 10 years with state government officials who prefer to do all of their work behind closed doors or with the oil industry,” he said. “And so I’m hoping the department realizes that it’s just better government when you don’t put up roadblocks.”

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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