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Published on July 16th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


North Dakota Pipeline Spill Thwarts Beavers’ Best Efforts

July 16th, 2014 by  

Despite the valiant efforts of local beavers, it appears that the impact of last week’s North Dakota pipeline spill are far more wide-ranging than initially reported. A followup account from radio station KUNC makes it clear that while beavers have awfully big teeth they do not have the monitoring equipment needed to identify spills in a timely manner, which could have prevented the worst damage before it began.

North Dakota pipeline spill

Beaver (cropped) by Michael Bentley

Beavers Thwart North Dakota Pipeline Spill!

There have been many (many, many) pipeline spills in North Dakota since the drilling boom began, but the latest North Dakota pipeline spill caught our attention last week for several reasons:

1. The original estimate was about 24,000 barrels, which is a pretty good-sized spill.

2. The spill was not detected earlier because there was no monitoring equipment.

3. State regulations do not require monitoring equipment.

4. The spilled substance was consistently characterized as “saltwater,” though it was actually wastewater from drilling operations.

5. The spill occurred near an important drinking water resource.

6. EPA officials were cited as explaining that beaver dams appeared to have helped keep the spill from affecting the aforementioned water resource.

Saltwater Or Wastewater?

We’re going to focus on #4 because definitions are critical when it comes to discussing the impacts of fracking (short for hydrofracturing), the drilling method that has led to boom times in North Dakota and other states by tapping into formerly inaccessible shale formations.

In initial reports, the contents of the North Dakota pipeline spill were uniformly described in neutral terms including “byproduct” of drilling, “naturally occurring,” and “saltwater.” Especially “saltwater.”

That certainly sounds a lot less scary than a massive spill of contaminated wastewater, but it’s misleading.

In the mining industry, “saltwater” has a different meaning than it does in common usage. As used in the industry, “saltwater” basically means wastewater. It refers to the underground water that comes up when a well is drilled. This produced water is contaminated by long term contact with gas, oil, or anything else that attracted drillers to that particular spot.  If the drilling is fracking, the wastewater is additionally contaminated with fracking fluid.

You can argue that fracking wastewater is 99.9 percent water, but it would still be wastewater. For that matter, municipal wastewater is 99.9 percent water, but nobody routinely refers to it as the “byproduct of people flushing their toilets,” because that would be missing the point.

“Worse Than Oil”

With the saltwater thing cleared up, let’s take a look at this Monday’s report on the North Dakota pipeline spill from KUNC. The station is part of a regional media network focusing on oil and gas issues, called Inside Energy.

Although the lede and body still refer to saltwater, the headline gets it right: North Dakota Pipeline Spills Over 1 Million Gallons Of Salty Wastewater Near Lake.

Referring to its past reports on radioactivity and chemicals in drilling wastewater, the KUNC report also makes it clear that the saltwater in question is contaminated with stuff other than salt.

The salt factor alone has an impact beyond what a lay person might expect. The report cites local emergency manager Karolin Rockvoy, who saw the site first hand and noted that the spill had killed grass and shrubs in its path:

‘You can’t really see the salt, but you know what salt water does to the vegetation,’ she said. ‘It’s actually kind of worse than oil because it sterilizes the ground.’

For good measure, KUNC also described the state of regulatory affairs in North Dakota, leading to a days-long lag in detecting the spill (break added):

A spokesman for Crestwood says the spill began over the Fourth of July weekend and wasn’t detected until Tuesday morning, when workers noticed lower-than-normal flows from the pipeline.

North Dakota doesn’t require oil companies to monitor saltwater pipelines for leaks, but a spokesman for the Department of Mineral Resources said companies can do voluntary inspections. A bill that would have required mandatory monitoring failed in the state legislature last session.

So…beavers really are the first line of defense against the impacts of drilling wastewater spills in North Dakota. How’s that been working out?

We’re sure they tried their best, but KUNC reports that the wastewater did leach through the soil into Bear Den Bay, which is part of Lake Sakakawea, and a drinking water intake has been shut off “just to be safe.”


Aside from the beaver fail on the latest North Dakota pipeline spill, according to KUNC beavers have also been largely ineffectual when it comes to preventing lightning strikes on wastewater disposal facilities.

KUNC cites a number of recent “dramatic” spills, including several caused by lightning strikes at wastewater disposal sites. These sites are not required by state law to have any protection against lightning, other than what the beavers can offer.

If you’re interested, Pro Publica has a good roundup of North Dakota spills since the drilling boom began.

We’re thinking those beavers are in way over their heads, but maybe that’s just us.

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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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