Almost a decade after Belle Fourche Pipeline Co., a True Oil company, told the Bureau of Land Management it was no longer using a pipeline 44 miles southeast of Buffalo, the pipeline leaked 25,200 gallons of crude oil onto public lands.
The company terminated its right of way permit in writing in 2006. At some point, without the knowledge of the federal agency, the company illegally resumed use of the pipeline, said Christian Venhuizen, BLM public affairs specialist.
Why and when the company continued to use the pipeline remains unanswered. Bob Dundas, environmental coordinator for Belle Fourche and Bridger pipelines, said he would forward the Buffalo Bulletin’s request for information and comment to someone who could answer questions related to permitting.
On May 20, 2014, Belle Fourche reported the oil spill to the BLM, after workers noticed oil seeping up from the ground, Dundas said. The BLM determined that Belle Fourche was in trespass, Venhuizen said, and fined Bridger Pipeline, a sister company, also owned by True Oil.
“The company was fined for trespassing based on the federal workers’ hours involved to investigate circumstances and to remediate the spill, as well as back rental for the existing pipeline,” Venhuizen said in an email.
Bridger was fined $27,029 for the Belle Fourche trespass, Venhuizen said. The money was paid on July 29, 2014, according to BLM records.
Bridger applied for a right of way amendment Sept. 9 of last year, Venhuizen said. The BLM is still processing the application, he said.
The spill originated from a crack on a gathering line, buried between 4 and 6 feet underground, and traveled 3 miles down a dry gulch, said Dundas. Most pipelines fall under the jurisdiction of a regulating agency, but gathering lines sometimes are not, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration.
The PHMSA regulates 551 miles of the Belle Fourche line in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. But, the gathering line that cracked in Johnson County did not meet the criteria for PHMSA oversight, said Damon Hill, PHMSA spokesman. The gathering line was either less than 6 inches in diameter, in a rural area or operated at a low pressure, Hill said.
As a result, PHMSA incident reports and records of compliance with safety codes on the Belle Fourche pipeline do not include the Johnson County oil spill. According to the agency’s records, Belle Fourche was responsible for two incidents in 2014, totaling 340 gallons of crude oil spilled and $231,700 in property damage. A full record of incidents on Belle Fourche pipeline is only available from the company itself.
The company estimated that 600 barrels, or 25,200 gallons, leaked last spring. That amount is an estimate based on Belle Fourche’s records of pump rates and number of days in use, and is not validated by independent, federal or state regulators, Dundas said.
Remediation continues on the site, Dundas said. Belle Fourche recommended that the soil be tilled to assist with bioremediation or biodegradation, which Dundas said involves getting enough moisture and oxygen to the area to assist microbes that feed off the residual crude. The company has also considered adding fertilizer, Dundas said.
Bioremediation is the preferred form of remediation because it doesn’t involve heavy machinery, which could create erosion, Dundas said.
“We’re trying to do as little damage as possible to the drainage,” he said. “It’s a lot less invasive.”
Dundas expects the remediation process to continue in the summer with a reassessment this fall.
*Editor’s note – In last week’s edition, a story about the oil spill in southern Johnson County incorrectly stated the amount of the spill. Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. estimated the spill at 25,200, not 12,200 gallons as originally reported.