"They've got to do a better job putting pipelines in"

Better construction standards are needed to ensure that gathering pipelines are an asset, not a spill risk

Pipelines that employ modern technology and are built by skilled workers are the cleanest, safest, most efficient option for moving large quantities of natural gas, oil, and other liquids produced through oil and gas development. Development of robust pipeline infrastructure has the potential to reduce rail and road congestion, deadly crashes and derailments, and pollution associated with overreliance on transport by truck or train.  Companies like Enbridge Energy, which operates large, regulated transmission lines in North Dakota, have an excellent track record when it comes to safe, sound, and environmentally sustainable pipeline operation.  

North Dakota's pipeline problems are largely centered around the construction and operation of pipelines that gather and transport gas, oil, and produced water from well sites to larger transmission lines.  Unlike transmission lines, the siting, construction, and operation of gathering lines is largely unregulated in North Dakota - a loophole that has contributed to growth in releases of oil and toxic brine onto farm and ranch land, and into waterways.

Lack of strong regulatory and project owner oversight has put North Dakota communities, natural resources, and ultimately the future of the state's oil and gas industry at risk:

    • At the height of the oil boom, North Dakota recorded more than 3,600 environmental incidents involving the release of over 8 million gallons of oil and brine in under two years - the largest coming from pipeline spills.

    • Two of the worst saltwater spills in state history have taken place in the past 24 months: the roughly million-gallon Crestwood Midstream spill on the Fort Berthold reservation and an estimated 3 million-gallon Summit Midstream spill that reached the Missouri River.

  • The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) found that use of capable contractors and skilled installation crews is the key to preventing future leaks and spills: 

"In the final analysis, no single pipeline product option, installation technique, or leak detection technology will impact the rate of leaks and spills more than ensuring that each and every person on each and every installation crew is made acutely aware of the risks... [and] follows these procedures to the letter... [T]he ultimate responsibility still rests with contractors performing the work." - Liquids Gathering Pipelines: A Comprehensive Analysis

  • Many contractors working the Bakken employ inexperienced workers and provide little or no training, putting lives and pipeline integrity at risk. One pipeline contractor secured permission to employ 150 foreign H-2B visa workers with no training, prior experience, or qualifications other than "must be able to lift and carry 50 lbs; must be able to bend, stoop, squat, twist, and kneel repeatedly" (see 2014 and 2015 visa applications). Others hired hands with no experience and offered no training according to testimony from former employees.

  • Too many contractors cut corners when it comes to the proper handling, connection, and placement of pipe.  Pipe is being left on the ground, dropped from trucks and backhoes, poorly welded, and placed in unstable trenches - practices that compromise integrity and can cause spills.

  • Pipeliners who worked for problem contractors expressed concern about the integrity of pipelines that they helped to build.

"[The operator] dropped the bucket right on top of the FlexSteel... he told me to jump down there and cover it up with dirt... I felt bad about leaving it there like that, but I didn’t want to lose my job"

"I was not surprised when an 8-inch Zap-Lok pipe we built... east of Williston, where we backfilled at night, blew out with 1,800 pounds of pressure two months after it was built. We had to dig it back up. They figured there was probably a rock on the pipe. I’m concerned that the same thing could happen to other lines we built." 

  • The core of the Bakken has become one of the most difficult and dangerous pipeline construction zones in the nation to navigate due to the extraordinary density of both abandoned and "hot" lines (oil, gas, brine, water, NGL, electric, etc.). Poor oversight and use of inexperienced crews increases the risk of line strikes with potentially disastrous or even deadly consequences.  An operator described right-of-way damage as follows:

"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."

  • The EERC report indicates that FiberSpar LinePipe - the material used to build the failed Crestwood and Summit pipelines - may be highly susceptible to damage from mishandling. No one knows how many miles of FiberSpar have been installed in North Dakota, or under what conditions, but its use may be more extensive than previously acknowledged.

"Some foremen and independent, third-party inspectors interviewed by the EERC team in the field stated for the record that they believe that this product is less tolerant of deviations to very strictly prescribed installation procedures because the epoxy/fiberglass reinforcement layer is more easily bruised by improper handling than the reinforcement layers in other reinforced plastic piping. It was conveyed to the EERC team by these field personnel that a small flaw can serve as a seed for a catastrophic failure after the line is installed and buried. The EERC observes that this does not seem to be an issue with the Fiberspar product, but rather of improper installation procedures executed below standards by contractors not sufficiently attentive to handling and installation concerns demanded by this product."

  • Some inspectors on whom project owners rely to monitor projects lack the necessary expertise or motivation to ensure quality construction.  One pipeliner describes his experience with inspectors as follows:

"[Inspectors] seemed most interested in production – how many feet, how much fill. During the day, many inspectors sat in their trucks on the top of the hill where cell reception was better, and I often saw them playing video games or watching Netflix."

  • Project owners can't count on regulators to monitor pipeline integrity, because, as of September 2015, there was not a single state or federal pipeline inspector based in North Dakota.

Here are other things pipeliners employed by problem contractors had to say about construction quality:

"We did much of our backfilling at night when the inspectors were gone. I believe that the company deliberately backfilled when no inspectors were present because the fill we dropped on the pipe was full of rocks, we didn’t pad it first."

"They would have us trying to weld in 50 mile-an-hour winds, which is idiotic. The welders would say it was a bad idea, but most of the time the company would push to do the welds anyway."

 "[O]ne of the worst things I saw... was a pipe that was hit and then covered up like nothing

"We have these draws that we go through, and they were pushing the stringing truck operator just to go, go, go, go instead of doing all the straps the proper way. We should have done it the right way, got through the draw to a level section and carried back the pipe we needed. But the company wanted them to go through the draw with the pipes loose. They told us if the pipes fall off, they fall off."

"Sometimes things that should have come out of the trench like mats would be left there as backfill."  

"There was a lot of leaving water in pipes
overnight, which they shouldn’t be doing in freezing temperatures because the
pipes freeze up."

The photos below depict environmental incidents and evidently substandard construction practices that threaten North Dakota's lands, waters, and energy industry.