North Dakota Regulators Owe the Public a Better Explanation for Spill Underreporting

Dave Glatt, the environmental health section chief for the Department of Health, talks Thursday, July 18, 2013, about the state's efforts to crack down on oil waste in western North Dakota. (TJ Jerke/Forum News Service)

“I get it – people want more information.”

That’s what North Dakota Environmental Quality Chief Dave Glatt told the Associated Press, responding to controversy over a situation were hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid natural gas was described as merely 10 gallons in an official state report.

But does Glatt get it? So far his explanations for how this situation came to be are pretty lame.

He and his agency have said that the 10 gallon figure was just the initial report, and it would somehow be illegal to change that record. While it is against state law to alter a public record, there was nothing stopping Glatt and his agency from issuing subsequent reports and updates to give a clearer picture as to what happened.

The it’s-illegal-to-change-the-record explanation comes off as insultingly evasive.

Does Mr. Glatt think the public is stupid? C’mon.

“Exactly how many other spills have been mis-reported?” asks the Minot Daily News today. It’s a fair question.

This is important stuff. The oil and gas industry are hugely important to North Dakota. There are political forces aligned against it. Those well-funded groups are always looking for an excuse to file yet another lawsuit and paint the industry as a villain.

They’d love to upset our state’s balanced approach to regulating the oil and gas industry by making it seem as though officials are just lackeys for the industry.

What Glatt and his agency did was give them a big, fat talking point. One which will get a lot of play in the news media which a) by its overall ideological makeup is not inclined toward cordial coverage of oil and gas development generally and b) loves sensationalizing spills as evidenced by their insistence on reporting their metrics not as barrels, which is how the government tracks them, but gallons which makes for a much larger number for headlines.

I’m about as big a proponent of oil and gas development as you’re going to find, but when spills happen they must be quickly and accurately reported to the public.

The state has made significant strides in this area in recent years. The Department of Environmental Quality has an online database tracking these incidents. In the past people interested in this information had to access it only through records requests.

But now there is reason to question what’s being reported in the database. If a given report says a spill was only a couple of barrels, is that really the scope of it? Or is there some larger quantity not being reported?

“Exactly how many other spills have been mis-reported?” asks the Minot Daily News today.

It’s a fair question.

There is no evidence that this problem with reporting caused anyone, from the company responsible for the spill to state regulators and inspectors, to behave differently. By all accounts they responded it appropriately. It’s just the scope of the problem which was kept from the public.

That needs to change.

We need to get to the bottom of what happened with this incident – not to mention any other reporting snafus which may or may not exist – and proponents of oil and gas development need to be leading the charge.

If the public can’t trust that the state is providing prudent oversight of the oil and gas industry the political winds will shift, leaving an opening for environmentalist groups that would shut down development with little regard for what that would mean for North Dakota’s economic well being.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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