DICKINSON — Belle Fourche is still using the same meters that it was using on the Centennial pipeline that failed in 2016, spilling an estimated 12,615 barrels of crude into the Ash Coulee Creek in December of 2016.
A hillside in the area had slumped, breaking the line, but the leak went unreported for several days. Oil is still coming out of the hillside.
While the meters the company is using for its leak detection are still the same, the company has changed a number of its procedures and practices, to ensure there will not be a repeat of the problems that led to such a large spill going unnoticed until a landowner reported it.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak pressed the company on the key markers that it missed in the Ash Coulee spill, and asked the company to explain what will be different this time with the Skunk Hill pipeline that it’s now seeking to convert. That line is not only in close proximity to the Heart River, but crosses underneath it.
Ken Dockweiler, director of Land, Government and Compliance for Belle Fourche Pipeline testified that there were two main things employees missed in the Ash Coulee spill.
The first related to the variability of volumes going into the line, which caused confusion about what should be coming out of it, and the second was lack of confidence in a particular meter.
“So the meter was faulty before and they ignored it longer than they should?” Fedorchak asked. “Is that what happened?”
Dockweiler replied that the company had its first indication on Dec. 3 from the meter. The control room and field office communicated about the situation, as they should.
“It was decided to get out Monday morning to fix the meter again,” Dockweiler said.
However, instead, a landowner called the state and reported the presence of oil in his field.
Since then, the company has had the manufacturer of the meters in question come in to verify that all of them are set up correctly and are functioning as they should be.
They are also collecting information more often now. In the case of the Skunk Hill line, data will be pulled every two to four seconds from the Skunk Hill meter into the pipeline and again where it leaves the pipeline to enter the refinery.
Pressure will be monitored along the line as well, which is now a fixed, point A to Point B, volume in-volume out line, otherwise referred to as a transmission line.
Among other steps the company is now taking, new controllers are being paired with more seasoned employees, to mentor them and ensure they are not only well-trained, but have someone they can go to to ask questions if they run into something odd.
Protocol-wise, the controllers are also now charged with shutting down the system if anything doesn’t seem right. After that both field supervisor and control room supervisor must agree that everything is OK before the line is turned back on.
“We have also mimicked some leaks on the system,” Dockweiler said.
This is done by setting up a hydraulic fracturing tank by a valve and opening the system into the tank to create a small leak, to see how fast it will be seen.
“We don’t tell the controllers,” Dockweiler added. “It’s been a neat training tool to see.”
The company was also pressed on why it was still using manual block valves by the river crossing.
Dockweiler said one of the valves is actually automated, and that the company would be open to changing out the other valve to make it automatic.
All three commissioners also pressed the company on why its application for the conversion took so long. The company has actually already converted the line, and began the application process 20 months ago after learning from staff that they needed to.
“I won’t make the case it was reasonable,” Dockweiler said.
At a meeting with PSC staff, it was determined that the line was now a transmission line, and thus fell under new regulatory oversight. Dockweiler said the company was actually working on three pipelines based on that conversation, trying to get all of them in front of the PSC at once.
“Did staff suggest that is the way to do it?” Fedorchak asked.
“You know, I don’t recall that they suggested it,” Dockweiler said. “In hindsight, it wasn’t the right call, which is why there are two in front of you.”
A hearing for the second conversion is Tuesday in Watford City.
Dockweiler said he did not leave the meeting with PSC staff with any sense from them that there was particular urgency to get the permits done.
The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality put in a rare appearance at the Public Service Commission meeting in Dickinson, to urge that the PSC consider a third-party audit to ensure the company’s protocols will ensure future accuracy, and that they include proper protocols and training procedures, among other points.
The Director of the Division of Water Quality Karl Rockeman testified that he had come to expand on comments already provided to the company in a July 6, 2017 letter.
“All pipelines should have adequate leak detection systems to allow for timely detection of leaks,” he said. “In some cases, inadequate leak detection has resulted in significant losses of both oil and saltwater and subsequent environmental damage. Conversely there have been other times when timely detection of leaks by the pipeline operator resulted in only small incidents.”
Rockeman said the Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t object to the pipeline conversion, which has already happened, as long as there is appropriate oversight and a thorough evaluation of the monitoring, leak detection and control room management of Belle Fourche lines.
Dockweiler, meanwhile, in prior testimony had said the ask is reasonable, and that just such an audit is already underway.
“There is a third party that does such audits, and there is one there now,” he said. “Their name is PHMSA.”
Dockweiler said that the federal agency was in the company’s office January of 2016 reviewing their control room management, and returned on Feb. 26.
Rockeman agreed that the audit by PHMSA could satisfy his concerns.
The water quality director also urged the PSC to pay special attention to a letter from the North Dakota Geological Survey about the pipeline’s proximity to areas prone to slumping.
That, too, is a “fair ask,” Dockweiler testified in prior testimony.
A key difference this time, he said, is that the pipeline doesn’t actually traverse such an area, like the Centennial line did. The areas prone to slumping are 200 or more feet away. They will be monitored to ensure that any shifting is not encroaching on the pipeline.
Also testifying during the public comments portion was Laura Grzanic, a resident of Billings County, who wanted reassurance that her county had been notified of the pipeline conversion. She also had questions about the age of the system.
“This is a 24-year old pipeline,” she said. “Is there any testing that should be done to make sure the age of this pipeline is compatible with the project. Can it take 20,000 barrels per day and the pressure from that? Those are my only two concerns.”
Fedorchak told Grzanic that the notifications had to be sent to all counties the pipeline traverses. It was also noted, later in the proceeding that a letter from Billings County Commissioners is part of the record, and says that they do not have a problem with the conversion.
As far as the age of the pipeline, Fedorchak pointed out that the line is being regulated and monitored by PHMSA, which is a federal agency. Its reports are being shared with all the relevant agencies monitoring the line.
“I don’t think there is a need for additional monitoring and testing to what is already in place,” she said. “In my view, it is being done.”