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N.D. unable to find qualified pipeline inspectors; lawmakers try to add safeguards

WILLISTON, N.D. - State oversight of more than 20,000 miles of underground pipelines has been "very, very minimal" as it struggles to hire qualified inspectors, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission says.

1486074+0127 Pipelines.jpg
In this Jan. 12, 2015 photo, crews dig up land at a saltwater spill site near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, North Dakota. A North Dakota health official called the 70,000 barrel spill the state's largest during the state's current oil boom. (Zack Nelson/Williston Herald)
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WILLISTON, N.D. –  State oversight of more than 20,000 miles of underground pipelines has been “very, very minimal” as it struggles to hire qualified inspectors, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission says.

New rules approved by the Industrial Commission that took effect last year govern small gathering pipelines such as the pipeline that spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater near Williston this month, the state’s largest spill on record.

Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream Partners, learned of the rupture of a 4-inch pipeline on Jan. 6 and last week estimated the spill amount to be 70,000 barrels, or nearly 3 million gallons. Some of the produced water entered Blacktail Creek and eventually the Little Muddy River. Cleanup efforts are ongoing.

The installation of that pipeline last June was not inspected by the state, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.

Although the new rules related to such pipelines took effect last April, funding for three pipeline inspectors did not become available until after that pipeline was installed, Ritter said. The department began advertising the positions in late July, but has been unable to fill them, she said.

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“We just have not found the right people to hire yet,” Ritter said.

If the Industrial Commission were fully staffed, state pipeline inspectors would visit the sites, talk to company representatives and observe the installation process, Ritter said.

“Being there to see what’s going on is a big piece of the puzzle that we don’t have right now,” Ritter said.

One Department of Mineral Resources field inspector has assisted with monitoring pipelines, but inspections of pipeline installations have been “very, very minimal,” Ritter said.

Field inspectors who do routine inspections of oil and gas wells and saltwater disposal wells check for disturbances on the surface that may indicate a problem underground, Ritter added.

Under the new requirements, pipeline operators are required to submit an affidavit stating that the pipeline was constructed in compliance with state rules. Companies also are required to submit information such as how deep the pipeline is buried, what leak or spill monitoring methods are in place and the type of fluid it carries.

The rules apply to underground gathering pipelines that transfer oil, gas, saltwater and other liquids and are not monitored by other state or federal agencies.

“Most companies that I’ve heard from say the best form of prevention starts with installation practices,” Ritter said.

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Some legislators pushed unsuccessfully for additional safeguards for saltwater lines during the last legislative session. Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represented landowner groups, said Monday the Industrial Commission's new rules did little to prevent major spills.

“They’re kind of meaningless rules, in my opinion,” Braaten said.

A bill introduced late Monday would require all pipelines installed after June 30, 2017, to have flow meters, automatic shut-off valves and pressure cutoff switches.

“It’s very difficult to know when one of these pipelines ruptures and how to prevent a small spill from becoming a catastrophic spill,” said Assistant Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson is the prime sponsor. The bill also would require all pipelines, including saltwater lines, to be permitted and bonded. In addition, it requires a study of technology to detect or prevent pipeline leaks.

Information about what safety mechanisms were in place on the Meadowlark pipeline that ruptured was unavailable Monday.

The pipeline had a metering system in place, but Industrial Commission officials were still assessing Monday what kind of technology and procedures Meadowlark had put in place, Ritter said.

Meadowlark met the state requirements by submitting the required information within 180 days that the pipeline went into service, Ritter said. However, that information is not available to the public other than landowners, a stipulation that was approved by legislators.

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The pipeline that ruptured is constructed of a composite material called Fiberspar LinePipe, the company says on a website to update the public about the spill, www.meadowlarkupdate.com .

The state currently has jurisdiction over about 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines, Ritter said.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, has said he anticipates the state will have nearly 50,000 miles of such pipelines in the future.

Helms and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, chairman of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, were not available for comment Monday. The North Dakota Industrial Commission is set to discuss pipeline safety at its meeting on Wednesday, scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Governor’s Conference Room.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission also struggles to recruit and retain pipeline inspectors, Chairman Brian Kalk said Monday.

The PSC has two pipeline inspectors to oversee natural gas pipelines, but one position has been vacant for several months, Kalk said. For the past several years, the PSC has had a “revolving door” of pipeline inspectors who typically leave for better-paying industry jobs, he said.

“It’s not just a North Dakota problem. There’s not enough certified, qualified inspectors in the country,” Kalk said.

The PSC is now advertising a monthly salary of $5,000 to $8,000 for the inspector position and is considering retention bonuses, Kalk said. Even after increasing the monthly salary to up to $8,000, the PSC has not had any applicants, Kalk said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is advertising a monthly salary of $3,400 to $4,400 for pipeline inspectors, plus a potential recruitment bonus for external candidates. The three vacant positions are in Williston, Minot and Dickinson.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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