Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) received validation after it suffered its first leak- before it was even fully operational. Indigenous and environmental groups were outraged that their warnings of the environmental threats this project posed have already started to come to pass.
The $3.8 billion oil pipeline, which sparked controversial protests throughout last year, spilled 84 gallons of crude oil at a South Dakota pump station, according to government regulators. The spill, equal to about two barrels of oil, occurred in the Tulare Township in Spink County at the beginning of April. Although officials state that the leak was contained and quickly cleaned, critics of the project raised concerns once again about the potential hazards to the waterways and Native American sites.
“They keep telling everybody that it is a state of the art [pipeline], that leaks won’t happen, that nothing can go wrong,” said Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has been fighting against the project for years. “It’s always been false. They haven’t even turned the thing on and it’s shown to be false.”
The pipeline is in its final stages of preparing to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois. It was dealt a major blow when the Obama administration denied a key permit for the project towards the end of his term. After his inauguration though, President Donald Trump ordered the revival of the pipeline. He went out of his way to expedite the final stage of construction despite discussion about his conflicts of interest with Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the corporation spearheading the project. After Trump’s intervention, ETP received approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers in Feb and are now expecting DAPL to be in service by June 1. But the leak has renewed discussion on the pipeline, as the oil was spilled around 100 miles east of Lake Oahe, a part of the Missouri River system that has been one of the main focal points of the protests.
“This is what we have said all along: oil pipelines leak and spill,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. The Sioux tribe, who have been locked in a lawsuit against ETP and the US government for several months, have argued over the last few months that the project requires a full environmental study to assess the short and long-term effects of the pipeline. This April spill, uncovered by a local South Dakota reporter, illustrates the need for this full environmental assessment which was never properly completed.
“Our lawsuit challenging this dangerous project is ongoing, and it’s more important than ever for the court to step in and halt additional accidents before they happen,” Archambault said. “Not just for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and our resources but for the 17 million people whose drinking water is at risk.”
Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, disagrees.
“It’s not uncommon to have a small release at a pump station,” Walsh said, adding that the company responded immediately and cleaned up the liquid petroleum. The spill occurred inside a “secondary containment area, ” and there are currently no environmental impacts according to Walsh. His department only releases public notices of spills when there is an imminent threat to a waterway or public health, and points out that this is the pipeline’s first spill in the state.
Considering the pipeline is 1,172-mile long, running from western North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, focusing on the involvement in one state seems rather short-sighted. DAPL will link up with another pipeline to bring shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken play of the Gulf Coast- that’s a long distance to go. ETP spokeswoman, Vicki Granado, said the spill occurred during DAPL’s commissioning activities and reiterated that there is no impact on the wider area. Yet, people are only discussing this now because of some investigative work from a local reporter.
What kind of oversight is occurring? Neither ETP nor the state of South Dakota made any announcement about this spill. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources did post a short report on its searchable database but did little else to notify anyone involved.
“We realize Dakota Access gets a lot of attention. We also try to treat all of our spills in a consistent manner,” Walsh said. “We treated this as we would treat any other 84-gallon oil spill.”
I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the thinly veiled attempt to not stir more controversy with DAPL, or that this is how they handle all 84-gallon spills. Should people be searching each day to see what spills have occurred? This does not bode well, especially on top of the issues ETP is currently encountering in Ohio.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) issued a $431,000 fine against ETP, citing 18 incidents since late March that involved mud spills from drilling, stormwater pollution, and open burning. Federal officials ordered ETP to half drill activity until it complies with environmental measures and receives authorization. ETP responded by saying that the “small number of inadvertent releases of ‘drilling mud’ is not unusual,” and that it is a common occurrence during drilling operations. “We do not believe that there will be any impact to the environment.”
Sound familiar? It gets worse, because one of these incidents in Ohio even affected a village’s public water system- the pipeline crew dumped around 2 million gallons of bentonite mud into two Ohio wetlands. Used as a drilling lubricant, the mud spill created hazardous conditions in the local Harrison County. If that was just from the mud involved in the drilling, what actions and attitudes are ETP going to take with even more dangerous oil?
I have no burning conclusion for this. I was a huge supporter of DAPL protests, even before authorities began violating human rights to try and protect corporate interests. Although in the grand scheme of things, two barrels of oil in a containment area isn't necessarily anything to get up in arms about- those two barrels in a waterway? That could be disastrous for local water, wildlife, and people living in the surrounding area. This spill that was quietly cleaned up lacks any sort of accountability, and makes me concerned for communication and clean up methodologies in the future. I hope, for the sake of everyone in the path of the pipeline, ETP gets its act together and starts putting efforts in place to counteract spills and inform the public about what’s happening.