Pipelines crossing Lake Sakakawea raise public concerns

GARRISON -- Friends of Lake Sakakawea are ramping up efforts to educate the public on concerns about pipelines as more of such infrastructure has been proposed and reviewed nearly annually for the past seven years.

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The intake structure and embankment of the Garrison Dam sits on Lake Sakakawea, near Riverdale. (JESSICA HOLDMAN, Bismarck Tribune)

GARRISON -- Friends of Lake Sakakawea are ramping up efforts to educate the public on concerns about pipelines as more of such infrastructure has been proposed and reviewed nearly annually for the past seven years.

“What matters is that people learn; they take ownership,” said Terry Fleck, chairman of the organization.

Since the ‘50s, the Army Corps of Engineers has permitted 32 pipelines on federal land around Lake Sakakawea, nine of which cross the lake.

The agency is reviewing eight more that have come to the table within the past seven years - including the 570,000 barrels-per-day Dakota Access Pipeline, for which the North Dakota oil industry has high hopes.

With the high volume of pipelines under consideration, the Friends of Lake Sakakawea held a public information meeting with corps officials in Garrison on Monday with the aim of giving people the information needed to be involved and voice their opinions during the permitting process.


“Once it hits the water, it’s a big deal,” said one attendee, Susan Connell, who has spent the past five years working in the Bakken.

In her time in the industry, Connell said she has seen many spills and pipeline problems.

“I’m just really concerned that it stays away from the water; it should be nowhere near the water,” she said.

The organization wants to enlighten members of the public about the often confusing pipeline permitting process, so when they do attend public input meetings that weigh on the corps’ decision making, they are not intimidated and can speak with authority, according to Fleck.

About 75 people attended the meeting, more than was expected. Many expressed concern about pipelines near the water supply for communities along Lake Sakakawea. Among some of the questions asked: How are pipelines monitored when they run under the lake and what does the corps require for building materials and processes?

Corps officials said new pipelines are required to have Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition remote monitoring systems with shut-offs on both sides of the lake. In addition, the corps is requiring thicker pipelines than what is required by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Older pipelines are undergoing pigging - a process in which a device travels through the pipeline cleaning and taking measurements, including wall thickness - every three years rather than the five years PHMSA requires, according to Larry Janis, division director for the corps' Omaha district office.

Casey Buechler, lake manager for the corps, reported that Hess Corp., which has six pipelines around the lake, some from as far back as the ‘50s, has decommissioned some of its pipelines that have shown structural weaknesses.


Kelly Morgan, tribal archaeologist for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said he is concerned how low oil prices, struggling and failing oil companies and a dwindling workforce might affect control and cleanup response to spills.

“Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is against any and all pipelines going across the water,” she said. “We can live without oil, but we cannot live without our water .… We know that pipelines break; we know there’s spills.”

If a leak does happen and gets too big for the operators to contain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency steps in, Buechler said.

Several pipeline operators have been conducting spill response drills on the lake; six drills were conducted in areas such as Parshall Bay. Three more are scheduled for the summer. Ice drills were attempted this year but canceled due to poor conditions.

“I’m pro-pipeline, but we want them developed responsibly,” said Travis Hallam, pipeline safety officer and acting tribal pipeline authority for Three Affiliated Tribes.

Hallam, who said tribal members have all lost loved ones to oil traffic on the roads, is a former hazardous materials inspector specializing in pipeline and rail transport and has seen the materials used for pipelines fail time and time again. He said the question is how much risk is acceptable: There are good pipeline operators and bad ones.

“Once it makes contact with the water, we’re already lost,” Hallam said of any oil that is spilled.

Hallam said the tribal council voted 7-0 against the proposed BakkenLink Pipeline and Hess Hawkeye Crude Oil Pipeline because they do not bore down under the bedrock of Lake Sakakawea as does the Dakota Access Pipeline. They run along the lake bottom.


Directional drilling under the lake is the corps' preferred method, too, Janis said.

“We understand that sometimes that’s not possible,” he said.

The corps required one pipeline operator to conduct $1 million of geotechnical borings across the lake and evaluate other routes before it would consider allowing the company to use other methods than directional drilling. Even the Dakota Access Pipeline had to prove its drilling concept by doing borings on both sides of the Missouri River.

Janis said he was unsure about the timeline for the permitting of the eight proposed pipelines but encouraged public participation and comments as letters are sent out and environmental assessments and environmental impact statements are made available. More information is available on the corps website, .

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