A 2015 spill at the Garden Creek plant was at least 837,800 gallons of condensates or natural gas liquids, according to new figures provided to the state by the company, and is likely to top at least 1 million gallons, according to a top state regulator.
The figures are the latest for a 2015 spill that was initially reported by ONEOK as 10 gallons plus an unknown quantity. But it still puts the state no closer to a final estimate of the total spill size.
Tuesday, Sept. 3, the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality released a statement that estimated recovered materials at the spill site at 846,000 gallons of fluid, a figure that combined groundwater and condensate volumes.
The figure itself illustrates one of the difficulties in estimating spill volumes. On the one hand, the combined statistic, while an accurate reflection of recovery efforts, still tends to overestimate spill volumes. But, on the other hand, it’s also just a portion of what’s still left to recover in an ongoing cleanup that has years to go.
DEQ officials requested that ONEOK expedite a new estimate of recovered condensates from its 2015 spill after media reports criticized the spill report data the state agency provides online.
An initial report filed by ONEOK, which is readily available online, listed the spill’s volume as 10 gallons of condensate plus an unknown quantity of condensate saturating the ground around the pipeline.
Subsequent updates to the online materials, however, did not include any new information about how much material was being recovered at the site.
Last year, ONEOK told the state it had recovered 240,000 gallons of material in 2017. That information was part of the spill’s case file — which is available for public review upon request — but did not appear in any of the brief online notes that update actions related to the spill, attached to the bottom of the initial report.
That led some media outlets to accuse the state of covering up the size of the Garden Creek spill, since the recovered volumes turned out to be so much larger than the initial report suggested.
The department’s policy stating it will provide updated spill volumes only when new estimates are received from the company was also confusing.
ONEOK never sent such an update, and, since the recovered amounts would still underestimate spill volumes, there was never any update to the online estimate of spill volume — even though it obviously significantly exceeded 10 gallons.
An internal memo put the spill volume at 11 million gallons, but the company has said that number was used by its environmental contractor to design the cleanup. It was not meant to be an estimate of actual spill volumes.
Karl Rockeman, director of DEQ’s Division of Water Quality, told the Williston Herald that the total spill volume at Garden Creek is likely to reach at least 1 million gallons, though he added that also cannot be taken as a final estimate of the spill’s volume.
“Based on how things are going out there, I think we will be likely to get to at least that amount of recovered material,” he said.
Cleanup at the site is still ongoing, however, and is likely to continue for an unspecified number of years, Rockeman added. That makes a final estimate of spill volume difficult to obtain right now — if ever.
“We can say the spill is larger than that number, but how much larger, we don’t know,” Rockeman said. “The real question is are we getting it cleaned up, and the answer is yes. That is ultimately our goal, to get (any spill) cleaned up.”
ONEOK has meanwhile recovered most of the condensates that it can readily get by siphoning it off of ground water, according to Department of Environmental Quality Director David Glatt. He told the Williston Herald the company will be moving on to soil vapor extraction next.
In that process, air is pumped into the ground via a system of wells, pushing vapor out through a different series of companion wells.
Some of the material recovered in this fashion could be used as fuel for the remediation work, Rockeman said. It could also be fed back into production processes, or captured with charcoal filters.
The latter would require proper disposal, Rockeman pointed out.
In the meantime, Glatt has pledged to improve the transparency of spill reporting by his agency online, and that effort is already underway.
Rockeman said it will take place across three stages.
“In the short-term, we are reviewing the record, making sure we have some type of update in the database describing the current status of (all open spills,” he said.
This preliminary review of the state’s 600 to 800 open spills will be completed by the end of the week.
Some of the spill sites might require additional information from the company or a site visit to ensure an accurate update, Rockeman said. That additional work will be phase two.
“We cannot capture all the activity at each of these sites, but we can reference a report that is in the file,” Rockeman said. “That way the public will know they can access the information if they need it.”
The third phase, and longer term effort, is actually something that was already underway, long before the Garden Creek spill drew scrutiny.
The state has been working for at least a couple of years now on a new data management system for its spill reporting. A new approach to spill reporting and data management was among recommendations by a 2015 Energy & Environmental Research Center study that was looking into best practices for preventing pipeline spills.
The new data management system being developed as a result of the EERC recommendation will consolidate all the various types of spills into one database, whether crude oil or agricultural chemicals.
This should help reduce confusion as to where to find what spill, as well as prevent spills from being reported twice in the same database.
Too many different reporting mechanisms sometimes led company employees to file the same spill with multiple agencies. Those agencies also share databases, which sometimes also led to some duplication.
Agencies working on the improving the state’s spill reporting data include DEQ, Department of Agriculture, North Dakota Industrial Commission, and the Department of Emergency Services.
The working group is getting ready to send out requests for proposals on the new data management system, Rockeman said, with the goal being an entirely new system up and running within a year or so.
“This was moving along pretty steadily all along,” Rockeman added. “I don’t know that (the Garden Creek media coverage) sped it up any, but it reiterated that what we are doing is necessary.”