North Dakota Pipeline Spill Thwarts Beavers’ Best Efforts

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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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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3152 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

5 thoughts on “North Dakota Pipeline Spill Thwarts Beavers’ Best Efforts

  • I was taking to Joe the Beaver at Hank’s Bar after this fiasco and he said management was too cheap to bring in Caterpillar equipment 😉

  • It’s not just you, I agree that those beavers are in way over their heads.

  • Reading these articles on beaver dams being containment devices for industrial waste are very frustrating.
    If any of the authors had ever actually been out in the woods they would realize that it isn’t like the cartoons where beaver dams form real lakes. They are simply a device that slows the flow of the water to encourage a swampy area that is the preferred environment for the beavers.
    The idea that these leaking impermanent structures are going to do anything to prevent the flow of contaminated water other than to slow it down is laughable.

  • Well done. Language usage is the first defense in emergency response to spills. That’s why over the past 40 years we tried to clarify the language to tailor the appropriate response. MSDS and community right-to-know for example. However, oil and gas may have not gotten the memo or filed it post Bush/Cheney 2003 closed door energy planning, exempting oil and gas E&P operations from pretty much every federal environmental act. This may have been what happened along the Great Plains…What spilled? Um, salty water, but water, not oil, maybe. How much spilled? Not much, maybe several breadbaskets. How big is a breadbasket? About the size of a breadbasket, maybe a little bigger. Where did the spill occur? Over there, maybe, or there, it’s hard to tell.

    Fracking water that needs to be disposed of properly is called blowback. Blowback contains what was in the shale formation that includes salts, heavy metals, radionuclides, petroleum hydrocarbons and the entire mixture of whatever was put into the frack water to begin with. Sea life did not evolve in hydraulic fracturing blowback. This water is becoming the thorn in the side of go-go shale fracking. Water disposal techniques such as deep well injection, spraying roads for dust control and de-icing, on site treatment, barge shipping to god only knows where are all becoming very questionable techniques.

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