Landowners forge unusual alliance with clean-up crews after oil spill last year

TIOGA, N.D. -- On Monday, Patty Jensen delivered a treat to the workers doing the cleanup on the site of one of North Dakota's largest oil spills. For husband Steve, it was just another day at the end of a busy harvest. But a year ago his discove...

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Farmer Steven Jensen stands in the front yard of his farm north of Tioga, N.D. Oct 24, 2013. Over 20,000 barrels of crude oil poured out from the ground onto his farm across his North Dakota wheat field Sept 29. It took almost two weeks for officials to announce to the public about the break in the Tesoro Corp. pipeline located just north of Tioga. Photo Ken Cedeno



TIOGA, N.D. -- On Monday, Patty Jensen delivered a treat to the workers doing the cleanup on the site of one of North Dakota’s largest oil spills.

For husband Steve, it was just another day at the end of a busy harvest. But a year ago his discovery of oil in their wheat field near Tioga set off a media frenzy and an outcry over the 11-day delay by state officials in notifying the public.

The initial report filed by the North Dakota Department of Health on the morning of Sept. 30, 2013, estimated the amount spilled as 750 barrels. Eight days later, pipeline owner San Antonio, Texas-based Tesoro Logistics called Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the state Health Department’s Division of Water Quality, with a revised spill estimate of 20,600 barrels.


“It was pretty stressful for me, it’s taken a pretty long time to go with the flow and accept it,” said Patty, who admitted that a medical scare in April deepened her stress.

“Life just doesn't stop to deal with an oil spill,” she said.

Cleaning up the more than 20,000 barrels - or 865,200 gallons - will cost about $20.6 million and is expected to take another 12 to 18 months, Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee said.

“It’s a disappointing event for the company. We’re committed to getting this land back to its original condition, so that the Jensens can start farming again,” said Eric Haugstad, Tesoro’s director of contingency planning and emergency response.

Steve started farming in high school on land homesteaded by his family in the early 1900s.

The Jensens, known for their hospitality and Patty’s homemade pie, have forged an unusual alliance with Tesoro and the workers on the spill site.

“They (Tesoro) really are trying to work with us. If something bothers us, we bring it right up,” Patty said. “It’s been pretty open - we stress communication.”



The cleanup

The farmland that is contaminated is about 2.5 acres within an 8-acre site. Some contamination extends 30 feet below ground, with contamination as deep as 50 feet below ground in some areas, said David Glatt, chief of the Health Department’s environmental health section.

The department announced April 25 it had approved a remediation plan for the spill site that would involve excavating the contaminated soil and heating it to high temperatures to remove the oil.

Several mounds of dirt rise high above a field dotted with hay bales. Contractor Nelson Environmental Remediation began working at the site in the spring.

A thermal desorption unit, or TDU, powered by natural gas, removes hydrocarbons from the contaminated soil, which is then quenched with water, during a 12-minute process. The treated soil is then returned to the excavation site separate from the contaminated piles.

Josh Clifford, of Minnesota-based QualiTech, is the site project manager for decontaminating the soil.

The TDU was assembled in May, reaching full capacity of more than 1,000 tons of soil per day by mid-May, and is modified to work in all seasons, Clifford said.

He said the 130-ton stainless steel TDU has a 180-foot-by-180-foot footprint. The roar of the 50-foot-high TDU requires ear protection.


A work crew of 16 operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week as heavy equipment scrapes, carries and dumps soil, maneuvering between and around massive mounds of soil.

Workers and visitors to the site are required to wear personal protective equipment including a hard hat and a clip-on meter to detect hydrogen sulfide gas.

Haugstad said he started to see real progress on the site by mid-August after a damp summer.

The plan for winter, Clifford said, is to continue “full speed ahead until the job’s done. We don’t slow down because of the cold.”


‘Watershed moment’

Wayde Schafer of the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club called the spill a “watershed moment” for the Health Department, saying its response has been an important step forward.

Glatt said the department’s policy changed “pursuant to the leak,” and its website now provides environmental incident reports. Press releases are issued for spills in which 150 barrels or more are released as well as those that migrate toward water or wetlands.


Paying attention to details, along with greater accountability, is the message Glatt said he wants energy companies to grasp.

“Development of the oil field is dynamic, not static. … As we go out for inspections, (if we see) continuing violations we will target you until we don’t find any, until they get the message,” he said.

The spill, which Tesoro blames on a lightning strike, focused new attention on pipeline safety in the state, which has about 20,000 miles of crude and natural gas pipelines, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority

The state Public Service Commission is requesting in its 2015 budget an additional 1.5 inspectors for natural gas pipelines and 3.5 for hazardous liquids (crude oil and byproducts). If approved by the Legislature, it would take effect Aug. 15, 2015. An emergency provision would allow for immediate action.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is struggling with similar staffing challenges, PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said, noting the agency only has 25 inspectors in the central region of the country, with none in North Dakota.

Don Morrison is executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental group that monitors the effects of oil development.

While the Jensens could be the faces for the negative impacts of oil, Morrison said after speaking with the couple late last year, he sensed their concern over “speaking out too much.”  

“Their intentions aren’t to make waves, their intention is to fix the problem. People who do speak out get ostracized - very lonely place to be when something goes wrong with oil on your land,” Morrison said.


Said Steve: “When people ask you about it, you don’t dwell on it. You just keep it short and simple.”


Looking forward

After the cleanup crews leave, there will be groundwater and topsoil monitoring at the spill site, as determined by the Health Department.

Soil scientists from North Dakota State University have been invited to do a study for future industry and possibly farm the Jensen’s wheat field the first year it’s back in production.

In a few weeks the Jensens will be offered a slice of hope and a glimpse into their future.

“When Tesoro is ready to put the first clean soil back into the ground,” Patty said with a smile, “they will let me and Steve operate the excavator and put the first scoopful back into the ground.”

  Pipelines in North Dakota:


  • 19,934, miles of underground crude oil and natural gas pipelines at the end of 2013
  •  2,578 miles of pipeline added in 2013

Source: North Dakota Pipeline Authority

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