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Other Views: No oil spill qualifies as ‘little’

In responding to what is believed to be the largest crude oil spill in North Dakota history, and the subsequent revelation that 300 spills have been kept from the public since January 2012, the state’s top oil regulator said he’s worried about “over reporting” spills. Mineral Resources director Lynn Helms said the goal is to find balance so that “the public is aware of what’s happening but not overwhelmed by little incidents.”

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Little incidents? A barrel of oil is 42 gallons. Water quality experts and soil scientists will tell anyone who will listen that when it comes to spilling oil into waterways and on land, there are no “little incidents.” The cost of cleaning up a “little incident” can be enormous. Damage to soil and water can linger for years. The history of spills confirms that no spill is small in the sense of immediate and potential long-term effects.

As top regulator, Helms often acts more like top cheerleader for the industry. That unfortunate circumstance is not entirely of his making. His job description is a contradiction: regulate and promote. The response to the record oil spill near Tioga suggests regulation is not of primary concern to Helms’ bosses on the State Industrial Commission, or to majority lawmakers in the Legislature. And in fairness to Helms, it should be noted that by law pipeline regulation is not in his portfolio. Also by law, the Health Department is not obligated to report spills to the public. Which raises the question: Who set such a toothless agenda?

The Tioga spill will be a seminal moment when North Dakotans realize how oil development and its associated goodies have overwhelmed the common sense North Dakotans say they value. An unreported pipeline failure spilled 20,600 barrels of crude into a farmer’s field. That translates into about 865,000 gallons. The spill occurred on high ground; it appears the water table will not be affected. That’s merely good luck in a bad situation. The tainted land, about the size of two football fields, could be unusable for at least three years, maybe longer, if experience with previous spills is a guide.

But most outrageous is that the spill was not reported to the public. It was found by a farmer who was working the field. The spill was kept quiet for 11 days. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who is chairman of the Industrial Commission, was not promptly notified.

Two disturbing trends come together in light of the Tioga spill and the Associated Press report that 300 spills since 2012 were not reported to the public. First, pipelines can fail, and fail spectacularly, even if equipped with monitoring technology.

Second, the mindset of regulators — from the Health Department to the Industrial Commission to the Public Service Commission to the Legislature — has been to downplay the now clearly demonstrated negative effects of the oil boom. They are either still playing catch-up with an inadequate regulatory regime or they are purposefully giving the industry a pass – the mantra being that state officials are proud of North Dakota’s business-friendly environment.

Well, fine. But another environment — the one comprised of waterways, recreational landscapes, ranches and farms — will pay the price if the state winks at oil spills, however small.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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