The company responsible for the release of at least 240,000 gallons of natural gas condensate from the Garden Creek gas plant in McKenzie County acknowledged from the start that its spill was larger than 10 gallons, according to North Dakota’s Department of Environmental Quality Director David Glatt, as well as a review of the initial report by the Williston Herald.
According to the state’s records, ONEOK discovered a leak at its Garden Creek plant 1 during construction activity in July of 2015 from two fractured elbows in an underground pipe that was transferring fluids between the plant and above-ground storage tanks.
A construction worker noticed the ground was damp in the area of the pipeline. Construction was immediately halted and the pipeline excavated.
It was at that point, Glatt told the Williston Herald, that workers saw 10 gallons dribble out from the pipeline into the excavation hole. This was noted in the initial report, filed online, on the blank line provided by the form for spill volume.
“But if you look in the spill report right below the 10 gallons, it says the soil was saturated with an unknown volume,” Glatt said. “So the 10 gallons is what they saw, but they also acknowledged that the spill is much larger.”
Glatt said the Department of Environmental Quality does not rely upon initial estimates from companies when it comes to addressing spills in the state.
“Companies are required to report an incident within 24 hours,” he said. “Many times, they are scrambling to contain the spill and address the issue as well as come up with a volume that was lost (for the initial report).”
Rather than rely on an eyeball estimate, which may have been filed in the heat of the moment, the state’s protocol instead favors sending an investigator to the site to see for themselves. That’s done even if the initial spill volume reported by a company is very small, as was the case with Garden Creek.
“We were there, and we told the company you have to do a bigger site assessment,” Glatt said.
The department’s inspector also told the company it must assess where the contamination is and isn’t, and make sure that the spill remains contained, Glatt said. The company was further required to submit a remediation plan, along with its plans to minimize environmental risks while the cleanup proceeded.
As part of that, 107 soil borings were made, 39 monitoring wells and 25 recovery wells installed, along with 15 vapor monitoring points and various other steps, all of which are outlined in the latest update of the spill's remediation, which is dated Oct. 1, 2018.
Glatt said it sometimes takes two or three years to get even a ballpark estimate of how big a spill really was. That amount is generally based on excavation or, as in this case, recovery of the spill material.
Other times, the state never gets an accurate amount for a release. In the case of condensate, for example, much of the lighter end material readily evaporates. It’s lost to the wind before it can be accounted for.
The initial report, however, cannot by law be revised, Glatt said, even once the spill’s size is better understood. The initial report is a legal record of what the company reported at that time, in that moment.
“A number is nice to have if we can get it,” Glatt added. “But it won’t stop us from characterizing the issue and cleaning it up as quickly as possible.”
Glatt said the first phase of the Garden Creek cleanup has so far recovered about 240,000 gallons of liquid condensate, or 5,800 barrels of material.
That phase has flattened out, however, and has reached the limits of cost-effective removal.
“Usually the way these work is that in the beginning you get the easy stuff, and then that falls off, so you come in with a new remediation technique,” Glatt explained.
The company doing the cleanup work for ONEOK is AECOM. They have run tests on soil vapor extraction, and will be using that in the next phase.
“The material is very volatile and evaporates quickly,” Glatt said. “If they can move air through the soil surface, they can evaporate that quickly and remove the contaminants that way.”
The volatile emissions will be controlled so they are not released to the environment, regulators later clarified.
Glatt said the contamination is “not very deep,” and estimated it is somewhere around 20 feet or so — although he added he did not have exact figures at hand during an interview with the Williston Herald.
“It is near the surface, but it did affect a perched water table,” he said. “It’s not a big aquifer, and it’s very localized. That water is contained on site to the property.”
The plant, which is 5.5 miles east of Watford City, is situated 16 miles south of the Missouri River, 1 mile northeast of Cherry Creek and 3 miles southeast of the Tobacco Garden and Timber Prong creeks.
Monitoring has confirmed no other water bodies were affected, Glatt said.
In light of recent media reports that claim the state is engaged in a coverup of the Garden Creek spill’s size, Glatt said the way in which the state reports its spill data is being evaluated.
“All of this is open record, but if you don’t know where to get it and you don’t know what questions to ask, it can be difficult to get at,” he said. “So we are looking at the best way to provide factual information and make it accessible to the public.”
Glatt said he is averse to making ball-parkish estimates, however. These would necessarily either overstate or understate spills, and would still not be very accurate.
“I’d be more comfortable with annual reports that say we removed this much contamination,” he said. “Updates like that with hard, factual numbers.”
Glatt said claims that the health department has received updated spill figures from ONEOK that are much higher than 240,000 gallons or 5,800 barrels are also false.
A representative of ONEOK, meanwhile, told the Williston Herald by email that figures reported by DeSmog Blog as potentially larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill were internal and not intended to reflect an accurate spill estimate. They were used in the design phase to complete cleanup plans.
The representative, however, did not respond to phone calls seeking further clarification of this statement. Emailed questions asking for clarification as to why the internal number would have been set so high did not receive a response.
“We have never received an updated estimate from the company,” Glatt said. “There is no coverup at all. They spilled something that needs to be cleaned up, and we are keeping an eye on them to make sure that they do it.”
A hearing will be held to consider a request to expand the Dakota Access pipeline to 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day, which will require the addition of five 6,000 horsepower motors and pumps.
The hearing, announced on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 21, will be 9 a.m. Nov. 13 in the Emmons County Courthouse Auditorium, 100 Fourth Street NW, in Linton.
Members of the Lakota Law project called the hearing a step in the right direction.
“The process must be fully transparent, the public must be heard, and tribal concerns about the safety of sacred lands and water must be properly addressed," the Lakota Law Project said in a media release sent to the Williston Herald. "We look forward to making sure those concerns are voiced in detail at the hearing, and it is our hope that the commission will use its authority to say no to the proposed expansion and prevent further danger to the environment we share.”
Members of the Lakota Law Project had pressed state officials for information about whether there will be a public hearing the day before the hearing was annnounced.
In a press release sent to the Williston Herald on Tuesday, Aug. 20, the organization said its campaign for public outreach had inspired more than 19,000 letters from the public to Public Service Commissioner Brian Kroshus, and questioned why no announcement had yet been made as to whether there would be a public hearing.
“Now we have a situation where it’s basically a different pipeline,” said Chase Iron Eyes in the email. He serves as lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project and public relations director for Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner. “They’re trying to pretend like they don’t owe us legal and regulatory oversight. It’s time to stand again with Standing Rock.”
Standing Rock Tribal Councilman Charles Walker, meanwhile, said that the pipeline doesn’t benefit the tribes or even the American people.
“It’s going towards corporations,” he said.
Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier expressed concern about increasing the pipeline’s volume.
“We don’t know if the pipeline is capable of handling [it], and I haven’t seen any documents to justify that,” he said.
Oglala Sioux tribe President Julian Bear said it is important to hold the federal government accountable.
“We have to assert our authority,” he said. “We need to assert our sovereignty, and that’s what the government needs to expect every time they come to us.”
Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, located south of Standing Rock in South Dakota, said it’s about both sovereignty and the water.
“My main concern with DAPL is that they’ve basically disregarded Indian input,” he said. “The water comes down through here, our territory, so we have to make sure that the water is clean and stays clean.”
Dakota Access filed its application seeking to expand the pipeline’s capacity and to waive requirements for a separate hearing in June. They had wanted to proceed by virtue of a notice and opportunity for hearing procedure.
The Public Service Commission said the hearing in November is to consider whether the proposed facilities will produce minimal adverse effects including human and environmental ones, as well as whether it is appropriate to waive any procedures and time schedules involved, as requested by the company.
Petitions to intervene are allowed, the Public Service Commission’s release added, and should be filed by Oct. 14, 2019, to ensure that any party granted intervenor status is able to participate fully in pre-hearing filings and other actions.
Less than a week after the application period ended, the school board for Williston Public School District No. 1 has a new member.
The existing board members voted 4-0 on Wednesday, Aug. 21, to appoint Cory Swint to the position, replacing Dr. Theresa Hegge, who resigned to take a job in Bismarck. He will serve until June 2020 when he will have to run to fill the final two years of the term Hegge won in June 2018.
Swint, who owns a plumbing business, has lived in the area for about five years. He and his wife have four children, three of whom are enrolled in the district.
“I want to give back,” Swint told the board members during a special meeting Wednesday.
Swint was one of 14 people who ran for three open positions in the 2018 school board election. In that race, which featured no incumbents, board President Joanna Baltes, board Vice President Thomas Kalil and former board member Hegge all won seats.
Swint praised the efforts of the board to deal with increasing enrollment. He said he had supported proposal to build two new elementary schools and an addition to the high school.
That proposal twice failed to gain the 60 percent needed to pass. Swint said he supported the plan on the second vote because of the work he saw the board members do.
“I really just like the way things are going with them,” he said.
A 71-year-old man is free on a personal recognizance bond after his attorney questioned a police claim that the man had 25 ounces of marijuana.
A judge agreed to give Leon Wahl the personal recognizance bond at a bond hearing Wednesday, Aug. 21, where Wahl faced a class A felony count of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and a class A misdemeanor count of possession of drug paraphernalia.
Agents with the Northwest Narcotics Task Force searched Wahl’s home in July and found multiple bags of marijuana, along with more than $10,000 in cash, THC vape pens, various smoking devices and dozens of firearms.
Kathryn Preusse, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, asked Northwest District Judge Benjamen Johnson to set Wahl’s bond at $20,000.
An affidavit of probable cause filed in Northwest District Court listed a total of 25.36 ounces of marijuana. Jeremy Curran, Wahl’s defense attorney, told Johnson that a search warrant inventory had listed the quantity of marijuana seized in grams, rather than ounces.
If that listing was correct, then Wahl had less than an ounce of marijuana, Curran said. In addition, Wahl is a medical marijuana patient who is legally allowed to have three ounces of marijuana.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion,” Curran said.
In addition, Curran said, Wahl has lived in Williston since 1981, has family in the city, has limited criminal history and has health problems. Curran said the Williams County jail likely would not be able to accommodate some of the health care needs Wahl has.
Johnson set bond at $20,000 personal recognizance, meaning Wahl did not have to post any money, but could be required to pay $20,000 if he doesn’t show up for court.
Wahl is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing Sept. 18.
Police say they seized nearly two pounds of methamphetamine during a bust Tuesday, Aug. 20.
The operation was run by the Northwest Narcotics Task Force with the assistance of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office, Williston Police Department, and United States Border Patrol.
One man, Jesus Sanchez, was arrested. Formal charges against the 40-year-old man had not been filed as of Wednesday afternoon. Police said Sanchez was in the United States illegally and had been deported before.
The investigation identified the source of about 16 pounds of meth that had been trafficked in Williston, according to a news release. The drug ring, which has a connection to Mexico, brought the drugs to Williston from southern California, police said.
Police put the estimated street value of the meth at $99,800. More arrests are expected in the near future.