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State says pipeline leaked for more than 3 months

WILLISTON - The operator of a saltwater pipeline that ruptured and contaminated a Missouri River tributary is facing more than $2.4 million in fines after an investigation showed the pipeline had been leaking for more than three months before it ...

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Crews work to recover oil from Blacktail Creek north of Williston on Sunday, Jan. 25 after a pipeline leak released nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater that included some oil. Photo courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

WILLISTON – The operator of a saltwater pipeline that ruptured and contaminated a Missouri River tributary is facing more than $2.4 million in fines after an investigation showed the pipeline had been leaking for more than three months before it was discovered.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission has proposed its highest fine ever for Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream Partners, the company responsible for spilling nearly 3 million gallons of brine near north of Williston.

The spill, discovered Jan. 6, contaminated nearby Blacktail Creek and also reached the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers in northwest North Dakota.

In addition, state regulators say the Environmental Protection Agency is engaged in both criminal and civil investigations into the pipeline spill, the largest of its kind in state history.

A week after the spill was discovered, Summit Midstream estimated the leak occurred between Dec. 25, 2014, and Jan. 6, according to an Industrial Commission complaint.

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However, an investigation showed that the pipeline likely began leaking on or before Oct. 1, 2014, or 98 days before it was discovered, the Industrial Commission alleges in its complaint.

The pipeline system operated by Summit transports produced water, a briny waste byproduct of oil development, from 44 oil and gas wells to two saltwater disposal wells.

Industrial Commission records show that the saltwater received from Summit’s system dropped dramatically last September and October, and even further during November and December of last year.

The drop, along with consistent saltwater production reported by the wells, suggests that the release likely occurred on or before Oct. 1, 2014, the complaint says.

The complaint charges Summit with violating state oil and gas regulations, including two charges that are subject to a $12,500 fine for each of the 98 days the company was in violation.

In all, Summit faces a possibility of $2,462,500 in fines, although the commission routinely reaches settlement agreements with companies and suspends 75 percent to 90 percent of potential fines. The commission also is seeking $11,788 for the cost to investigate.

Summit has not submitted a formal answer to the complaint and is pursuing settlement discussions, said Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter.

Zak Covar, Summit’s vice president for health, safety, environmental and regulatory, said the company does not comment on pending administrative actions but continues to work proactively with the Industrial Commission and industry experts to determine the cause, duration and volume of the release.

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“We have committed – and will continue to commit – extraordinary resources to this investigative process,” Covar said in a statement.

The North Dakota Department of Health also could levy a fine against Summit, but is first waiting for an EPA criminal investigation to conclude, said Dave Glatt, chief of the environmental health section.

The state health department will work with the EPA to jointly take civil action against Summit for state and federal environmental statutes that were violated, Glatt said.

A spokesman with the regional EPA office said the agency does not comment on enforcement matters until they’re resolved.

The health department continues to oversee cleanup of the spill, which contaminated groundwater near Blacktail Creek. Glatt has estimated that full remediation will take at least five years.

The company has said in statements that it’s committed to successfully cleaning up the spill and working with landowners. In addition, the company has invested in monitoring and leak detection systems and participated in a pipeline leak detection study by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University North Dakota, Covar said.

State regulators have not received information about what caused the pipeline to fail, said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.

After the leak, the company sent the section of pipe that failed to a lab for analysis. Current state rules do not require the company to provide the Industrial Commission with information about what caused the rupture.

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