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Warm weather complicates cleanup of brine spill

Temperatures reaching the 50s in the oil patch may be relief to some, but the warmer weather is hindering cleanup efforts at the site of a major pipeline leak.

The Forum News Service (FNS) reports that melting snow pack and increased water flow is making it difficult to collect the contamination in Blacktail Creek, according to David Glatt of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Health Section. Due to the increased flow, contamination is spreading more quickly into connected waterways.

The pipeline leak was discovered on January 6 by Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream Partners. The breached pipeline released an approximated 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) of brine water, a toxic byproduct of the drilling process, into Blacktail Creek. The waterway runs into the Little Muddy River and further downstream into the Missouri River.

According to FNS, Glatt said, “When things start melting and things start flowing fast, it’s difficult to collect that water. The good thing is it’s dilution water, but it’s also taking some of the contaminated water along with it.” The brine water, sometimes referred to as saltwater, also contained an estimated 2,520 (60 barrels) of oil. So far, roughly 4 million gallons of water has been removed from the contaminated area and dams have been constructed to collect the tainted water. The removed water contained part of the contamination, snow melt and other water.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is also involved in the remediation efforts, reports that the quality of surface water has been impacted and pollution is evident in the Little Muddy River near where it merges with the Missouri River. No drinking water has been affected, but officials are continuing to monitor surface and drinking water quality.

Despite the millions of gallons that were removed before the water could flow downstream, the unseasonably warm weather has caused water to flow over the dams. Representative for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department Kent Luttschwager said, “There’s so much water coming at them compared to what they were dealing with that it’s making their cleanup operations very difficult.” Until the ice melts, he added, it will be difficult to determine how wildlife has been impacted but predicts “it will be significant.”

Officials are involved in the ongoing investigation to determine how long the pipeline was leaking prior to the discovery. Investigators are working with a timeframe between December 24 and January 6. Luttschwager said, “The volume of water that was lost is alarming. We just can’t have these significant releases like this ongoing for an extended period before they’re noticed.” The part of the 4-inch pipeline that breached is being studied to determine what caused the hole on the top portion of the pipe.

Health officials plan to take enforcement action against the Summit subsidiary, but more information needs to be collected before a notice of violation is issued. The North Dakota Industrial Commission, which provides oversight of pipelines such as this, is also involved in the investigation and plans to take its own enforcement action.

To read the full report from the Forum News Service, click here.

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