Hold the Company, Not the Entire Industry, Responsible for Belle Fourche Pipeline Leak


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The Belle Fourche Pipeline has leaked over 176,000 gallons of oil into Ash Coulee Creek in western North Dakota.

It’s a major spill, and the response to it has been complicated by North Dakota’s severe winter weather. The latest word is that some five miles of the creek have been contaminated.

As you might imagine, this incident has been seized upon by the enemies of oil development generally and pipelines specifically. The leak happened just 150 miles or so from the site of the often violent #NoDAPL protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The protesters, not surprisingly, are claiming this leak makes their point against pipelines.

Except it kind of doesn’t. The Belle Fourche leak isn’t an indictment of the oil or pipeline industries generally. Rather, this is the latest incident from a company with a really atrocious safety record.

The Belle Fourche Pipeline is owned by a company called True which operates under a number of different names including the Belle Fourche Pipeline Company, Bridger Pipeline, Black Hills Trucking, Butte Pipeline Company, etc.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The Belle Fourche leak isn’t an indictment of the oil or pipeline industries generally. Rather, this is the latest incident from a company with a really atrocious safety record.[/mks_pullquote]

You can see all of the company’s various monikers here.

Since 2006 pipelines operated by this company have spilled 300,000 gallons of oil in 30 different incidents.

In North Dakota alone various True subsidiaries have been involved in 50 environmental incidents since 2006, including 200,000 gallons of spilled oil.

Those numbers don’t include the Belle Fourche leak.

It was Bridger Pipeline which was involved in an infamous spill of 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana back in January of 2015. Just two months before that spill – which is oft-cited as a case in point by anti-oil and anti-pipeline activists – the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning letter to the company over lax maintenance and inspection activities.

Between 2006 and 2013, according to this story in the Casper Star Tribune, the Bridger subsidiary of True averaged a rate of incidents per mile of its pipelines that was double the industry average.

Yes, double.

Nor is it just True’s pipelines divisions that are a problem. Black Hills Trucking is accused of illegally dumping saltwater waste from oil drilling on a road in western North Dakota. The state’s Industrial Commission is currently pursuing a $950,000 fine against the company.

In 2011 the Dakota Gasification Company alerted the ND Public Service Commission to “slipshod construction practices” by Bridger which resulted in damage to a gas line near an oil pipeline the latter company was installing. From DGC’s letter:

A review of the area of the cave-in leads DGC to believe that the cave-in was caused by slipshod construction practices on Bridger’s pipeline. We note that Bridger’s contractor had left a ridge of spoil material on the downhill side of DGC’s right-of-way which presumably caused water to build up, pool and apply downhill pressure on Bridger’s pipeline and trench. We note that it appears Bridger did not use appropriate backfill materials and also failed to compact its backfill. Finally, it appears to us that the Bridger’s pipe was laid on backfill instead of being properly laid on the bottom of the trench.

As DGC was concerned that the poor construction methods employed at this location might be representative of the entire Bridger pipeline as it parallels DGC’s carbon dioxide pipeline, we inspected the parallel line last week. Our concern was and is that there may be other areas where Bridger has jeopardized the lateral or sub-adjacent support of our carbon dioxide pipeline such that there may be similar movement of our pipeline whether or not a full cave-in occurs and whether or not apparent from surface conditions.

I could go on – there is a pattern of spills and safety incidents which stretch back more than a decade in the public record – but I think the point here is made.

True is a bad actor. A company giving the industries in which it operates a black eye.

Which brings us back to the political fights over oil development and pipelines. The environmental activists would have us stop building pipelines because sometimes pipelines leak. This is not a serious argument.

No human endeavor will ever be free from error.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]It is patently unfair to hang True’s abysmal track record around the necks of every oil company or pipeline operator, any more than it would be fair to blame Ford for a problem with Chevrolets, but that is what’s happening.[/mks_pullquote]

You may as well be demanding that we shut down air travel because sometimes planes crash.

But when a company is involved in one significant environmental incident after another, when they show a pattern of disregard for the law, it gives the activists credibility they don’t deserve.

It is patently unfair to hang True’s abysmal track record around the necks of every oil company or pipeline operator, any more than it would be fair to blame Ford for a problem with Chevrolets, but that is what’s happening.

For better or worse, the public tends to see the oil industry as a monolith. When one company – be it engaged in drilling or shipping or refining – acts irresponsibly the public perceives all the entire industry as being irresponsible.

And perception, especially in the world of politics, is reality.

It’s time for the oil and pipeline industries to start speaking out about the bad actors among them. It’s also time for state and federal regulators to start cracking down on companies that show a consistent disregard for safety and environmental stewardship.

We should discuss whether a company with True’s track record should even be allowed to operate.

Sound harsh? It is. But every new True incident is a hazard for the entire oil/pipeline industry.

UPDATE: Tad True, Vice President of Pipelines for True, contacted me this afternoon to provide some context for this post.

On the incident rate for the Bridge Pipelines cited by the Casper Star Tribune, True told me there was an error calculation by the PHMSA. He said the federal agency combined their incidents with another unrelated company called Bridge Logistics, though he acknowledged that his company does have a lot of incidents.

“I’m not going to refute that our incident rate is high,” he told me, but attributed that to the nature of their pipeline work. He said his company’s focus is on gathering pipelines, as opposed to main line infrastructure, which means their infrastructure has “a lot more equipment” like pumps where leaks can occur. He said comparing their incident rate on gathering systems to that of a main line company like Enbridge which goes “from point A to point B” is not “an apples to apples comparison.”

He said gathering pipeline networks, while they have higher incident rates than main line networks, are still preferable to transporting the oil by truck.

He also said that his company’s pipeline network is old, with some lines dating back to the 1950’s, and said  part of the reason for that is political headwinds inhibiting the build out of newer pipelines.

True also acknowledged that his company “had a compliance problem” a decade ago, but that they’ve improved since then. He said they’ve had no violations from inspections since 2008, and cleared their last notice of violation from the PHMSA in 2013.

On the Black Hills Trucking situation, True said that was the result of an employ who dumped “less than a barrel” of salt water on the road and plead guilty in court to a criminal charge as a result. The employee was also terminated. He said the company was fined over $200,000 by the North Dakota Department of Health for the situation, but they’re objecting to the additional fine from the Industrial Commission on the grounds that the state should only have one area of jurisdiction.

As for the complaint from the Dakota Gasification Company, he said they were sued over the matter but that the lawsuit was ultimately dropped.