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Published October 16, 2013, 09:18 AM

Pipeline test results came too late to stop ND oil spill

An inspection of a pipeline that leaked 20,600 barrels of oil near Tioga, N.D., showed a “serious problem” but the company did not receive the test results until after the spill occurred, a North Dakota state regulator says.

By: Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service

TIOGA, N.D. — An inspection of a pipeline that leaked 20,600 barrels of oil near Tioga, N.D., showed a “serious problem” but the company did not receive the test results until after the spill occurred, a North Dakota state regulator says.

In addition, Tesoro Logistics had not fully installed real-time pressure monitoring and automatic shut-down devices to the pipeline and was in the process of doing so at the time of the spill, says Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms makes several comments about the pipeline break in an email to his daughter obtained by Forum News Service. Helms’ agency does not have jurisdiction over pipelines, but he says that Tesoro Logistics has been giving him updates about the oil spill, which is the largest in North Dakota since the Bakken boom began.

The 20-year-old Tesoro Logistics pipeline formerly ran to the Tesoro refinery in Mandan, N.D., Helms says. After sitting idle for about 10 years, the line was reversed to transport Bakken crude to a rail facility at Columbus, near the Canadian border, and resumed service in August, Helms says.

In response to questions about Helms’ email, a Tesoro Logistics spokeswoman says the line had not been idle. She says the direction of the flow was reversed in August.

Tesoro Logistics says it performs internal inspections using what is known as “smart pig” technology on a recurring basis.

A “smart pig” is defined by the federal agency that regulates pipelines as a sophisticated and sensitive inspection tool that travels through the pipe to measure and record irregularities that may indicate corrosion, cracks, dents or defects.

Tesoro Logistics used that technology to inspect the pipeline in 2005 and most recently on Sept. 10 and 11 of this year, the spokeswoman says. The data is then analyzed by independent experts and findings are generally available within 60 days, she says.

Helms says the company used the line while waiting for the results because it also conducted a pressure test that was successful.

“It held pressure so they felt comfortable going ahead and pumping through it, knowing they were going to get these results in a month or two and they would take a look at it,” Helms says.

Helms says Tesoro asked for the results immediately upon discovering the leak,.

“The results show a serious problem where the leak occurred,” Helms writes in the email to his daughter, a chemical ecology student at Penn State. Helms explains that many of his daughter’s classmates are interested in oil and gas, in particular because of the development of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region.

What caused the leak is under investigation, but Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health’s Division of Water Quality, says a hole in the pipe may have been caused by corrosion from the outside.

Following up

Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration rules did not require this pipeline to have real-time pressure monitoring and automatic shut-down devices, Helms says. Tesoro Logistics was in the process of voluntarily adding that technology when the incident occurred, he says.

A Tesoro Logistics spokeswoman says the line is remotely monitored for pressure.

“The controls we had in place did not prevent this release, and we find that unacceptable. We will install controls that will,” she says.

Helms says his understanding from talking to the company is that the remote monitoring equipment was installed at some points in the system but not all the way to Columbus.

“They definitely gave me the impression that the entire system wasn’t up and operational yet,” Helms says.

The results of the smart pig test also showed some other areas of concern in the pipeline, Helms says. He says his understanding is the company will dig those areas up and inspect them before putting it back in service.

Tesoro Logistics says the “analysis identified areas appropriate for follow-up inspection. We are conducting that follow up and have not found any areas of significant concern.”

The pipeline segment from Tioga heading north remains shut down, the company says.

In response to a question from his daughter about what can be done to prevent future pipeline breaks and ensure proper pipeline maintenance, Helms writes:

“For starters smart pig them and no start up until the results are analyzed. Real time pressure monitoring every few miles. Fly over it weekly to look, drones would work for this. One would think someone would notice over $2 million worth of oil not showing up at the destination.”

Chip Ford, a Dickinson pilot who flies over this pipeline, says aerial inspections have occurred every week.

Helms: No negligence

Helms says he does not view Tesoro Logistics as negligent.

“Tesoro did absolutely everything that the rules required and they were voluntarily implementing more monitoring and safety than the rules required,” Helms says.

Helms, who called the incident a “bad accident,” complimented the company’s response.

“I think the response and the responsibility were right down the line followed the protocols exactly. I don’t see any negligence anywhere.”

But Helms questions the federal rules, which he says are the same for new pipelines as well as old pipelines that are being restored or converted to a new use.

“It would appear that maybe those rules should be more strict for older pipelines,” Helms says. “But I’m not in the pipeline business. This is a one-time incident. Maybe the statistical data would say things like this are really rare and the rules are appropriate.”

Ruptures on the decline

John Stoody, a spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, says overall incidents of pipeline ruptures have decreased about 60 percent in the past 10 years.

Incidents of corrosion as a cause of pipeline releases are down 76 percent in the past 10 years, Stoody says.

“A lot of the safety programs and safety regulations nationwide have been leading to lower overall pipeline ruptures,” Stoody says.

Helms echoes statements previously made by Brian Kalk, chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, that the state may want to take a greater role in monitoring pipelines.

Currently, the PSC has the authority to inspect natural gas pipelines in the state, but the federal agency monitors major crude oil pipelines.

“Federal regulatory authorities are a long ways away and things move very rapidly,” Helms says. “It seems like the state’s response to these things is much more clear and much quicker.”

The most recent Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspection of this pipeline was in August and September of 2010, Tesoro Logistics says.

PHMSA is affected by the government shutdown but an inspector was sent to the site Oct. 2, according to an email to the PSC. The federal agency is not responding to media inquiries.

Kalk says his office continues to seek more information from PHMSA.

“There’s a lot more questions than there are answers,” Kalk says.

Cleanup at the site continues during daylight hours. Crews have recovered at least 2,165 barrels of oil, Roberts says. Health department officials continue to monitor the cleanup and are waiting for an environmental consultant to recommend a plan for remediation of the site.

“We expect remediation will restore the land to the same or better condition,” the Tesoro Logistics spokeswoman says. “We are developing the remediation plan and timeline.”

Helms says he anticipates a long-term cleanup process.

“It’s going to be a year at least,” Helms says.