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Officials say cause of fire at ND gas processing plant is still under investigation

Gas is flared at an oil well in western North Dakota. Forum News Service file photo

WILLISTON, N.D.—The cause of a fire at a gas plant in far northwest North Dakota near the Montana border is under investigation, and it is not known when the plant, which was part of infrastructure critical to reduce flaring, will resume operation.

Stephanie R. Higgins, a spokesperson for ONEOK Partners, said there were no injuries in the incident, which occurred at about 9 a.m. Sunday, July 8, and had firefighters on standby for hours.

"Operations personnel are currently taking the necessary steps to safely return the facility to service," she said.

She did not respond to additional questions about the effect of the facility's downtime on flaring or ONEOK operations.

ONEOK is the largest independent operator of natural gas gathering and processing facilities in the Williston Basin, with a natural gas gathering system of more than 6,900 miles and acreage dedications totaling about 3 million acres.

The company operates nine processing plants in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, including the Stateline operation.

With record gas production, the state has been close to exceeding flaring limits several times this year.

Bill Suess, North Dakota's spill investigations manager, said no leaks escaped the premises during the incident, though the company did alert his department to the fire.

Williston Rural Fire Department Chief Dave Benth, who was on the scene of the fire on Sunday, said damage from the fire was contained to ONEOK's property, and that it did not force evacuation of any private residences.

A perimeter of 1 mile was established around the scene, and roads into the scene were blocked, to ensure no motorists entered the area.

The Williston rural department had about 15 firefighters on standby at the scene for about four hours on Sunday, while the gas fire was allowed to burn down.

The department did bring equipment to the scene that would have been necessary for fighting the fire had it escaped procedures that ONEOK uses for containment of such incidents. That equipment was purchased thanks to a county-wide 1 percent safety sales tax.

The equipment was not needed this time, Benth said. ONEOK does have the ability to shut off certain valves remotely, he explained, to help control a fire and prevent anything else from becoming involved, and those worked this time.

"ONEOK and its employees did a very good job," Benth said. "Their safety plan and safety devices worked great. Their personnel evacuated the facility and followed their procedures to a T."

Williston Rural Fire Department has had training exercises with ONEOK that cover such scenarios, Benth added.

The Stateline gas plant was completed in April 2013 as part of a $4.7 billion capital growth program to increase natural gas takeaway in the Bakken and help reduce flaring in the region.

More recently, the company sought permission to convert Stateline gas gathering lines to a natural gas transmission line called Cherry Creek. The converted pipeline is to run from its newly constructed Lonesome Creek plant to Stateline which is near U.S. Highway 2.

The proposed project is part of continued efforts to meet the state's flaring limits, as well as increase natural gas takeaway, by solving a bottleneck issue in that area. The PSC approved the project in May, and it was expected to begin operation in May of 2019.

ONEOK recently announced construction of a 10th plant, Demick's Lake, in McKenzie County, as well as construction of a 900-mile, 20-inch diameter pipeline called Elk Creek to take up to 240,000 barrels per day of natural gas away from its Riverview terminal in eastern Montana to a facility in Bushton, Kansas.

These upgrades were all part of $3 billion in projected capital growth projects the company had announced earlier this year.