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Published on July 11th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


North Dakota Pipeline Spill: EPA Sez Leave It To Beaver

July 11th, 2014 by  

We are catching up with the 24,000-barrel North Dakota pipeline spill that occurred earlier this week and it’s beginning to look surreal. The spill apparently involved wastewater from well drilling operations and the US Environmental Protection Agency is crediting a crafty gang of beavers with stopping it from reaching a critical water resource, while The Associated Press characterizes the contaminants as “naturally occurring.”

Ummm…the stuff spilled out of a pipeline, so how natural is that? In the immortal words of the Wicked Witch of the West, oh what a world, what a world. However, we’ll try to unpack all this.

North Dakota pipeline spill

Beaver (cropped) by Steve Hersey.

Naturally Occurring Wastewater!

We are sorry for picking on AP because they have been doing a superior job on the fracking beat, but in AP’s July 10 report on the North Dakota pipeline spill you’ll find the spilled substance described as “oil-drilling saltwater” and “saltwater and condensate, which are byproducts of oil and gas production.”

That’s beginning to sound a lot like wastewater from drilling operations. Farther down in the article there’s this explanation:

Saltwater is a naturally occurring, unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production…

The briny byproduct also may contain petroleum and residue from hydraulic fracturing operations.

How does naturally occurring go with fracking?

Actually, there is an explanation, which you can find over at the Colorado School of Mines. In miningspeak “saltwater” is another word for “produced water,” which is a polite way of referring to the wastewater that comes up when you drill holes in the ground.

You could also politely call it a “byproduct,” as AP does, but here’s the lowdown from CSM:

Produced water is water trapped in underground formations that is brought to the surface during oil and gas exploration and production…Because the water has been in contact with the hydrocarbon-bearing formation for centuries, it has some of the chemical characteristics of the formation and the hydrocarbon itself. It may include water from the reservoir, water injected into the formation, and any chemicals added during the drilling, production, and treatment processes.

Okay, so AP simply meant that the “saltwater” naturally occurs in rock formations. Fine. As to the occurrence of 24,000 barrels of salty water coming up from the ground in landlocked North Dakota, loaded with other naturally occurring contaminants as well as added contaminants from drilling operations, that’s a whole new ball of wax.

For a good rundown on North Dakota’s history of spills over the past few years do read the full AP article (here’s another version of the same article with some additional details).

More Stuff In That Pipeline Than Saltwater

Also, here’s a tidbit from Forum News Service via TwinCities.com. According to a local official cited by Forum, although the pipeline is currently used to carry saltwater (wastewater/whatever), in a previous iteration it was used to transport crude oil and it “still contains crude residue.”


The report also refers to saltwater and byproduct, but it clarifies that the substance is piped away from drilling operations for disposal, which okay so it’s wastewater.

North Dakota Oil Spill Thwarted By Beavers

Meanwhile, about those beavers. According to the AP report, officials from EPA seem pretty convinced that local beaver dams have played a role in preventing the spill from reaching Lake Sakakawea.

That part of the story has been repeated at scores of news websites but so far we haven’t seen any independent confirmation. If you’ve got something, leave us a note in the comment thread.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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