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Pipeline leak empties saltwater near Lake Sakakawea

A leaky pipeline has spilled about 1 million gallons of saltwater into a bay off of Lake Sakakawea. It’s the latest in a series of dramatic saltwater spills in oil country.

The pipeline runs along the shore of Bear Den Bay on Lake Sakakawea. That’s a reservoir on the Missouri River that supplies drinking water to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

“You can’t really see the salt but you know what salt water does to the vegetation.”

Karolin Rockvoy is an emergency manager for McKenzie County. She visited the site of the spill earlier this week and described a wide strip of dead grass and shrubs running downhill to the shore.

“It’s actually kind of worse than oil because it sterilizes the ground. Especially that much.”

The Texas-based Crestwood company owns the pipeline and says the spill began over the Fourth of July weekend.

Salt water is a byproduct of drilling that comes up with oil. Around the Bakken, trucks and pipelines carry the saltwater to disposal sites. Then the oil is stripped out and the water is injected back underground.

North Dakota doesn’t require oil companies to monitor salt water pipelines for leaks. A bill that would have required that failed in the state legislature last session.  

Because the spill happened on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the tribal government is responsible for clean-up.

On Wednesday, council member Ken Hall went and checked out the spill for himself by boat and helicopter. He delivered this message to tribal members in a video on his Facebook page.

“I want to assure my community residents that I’m out here making sure our water is not contaminated.”

Although the saltwater leaked into Bear Den Bay, tribal officials say they are keeping it from spreading into the main body of Lake Sakakawea. They’re now using vacuum pumps to suck the saltwater up. Still, the tribe closed a drinking water intake near the town of Mandaree just to be safe. And council member Ken Hall has another option for residents.

“If you want some drinking water, I did authorize the staff to buy some water for our community residents for precaution. So there is drinking water at the community center.”

There have been a number of dramatic saltwater spills recently. On Monday, a saltwater disposal facility burned to the ground after being struck by lighting. It’s the third saltwater disposal site to be destroyed by lightning this summer. Each time, hundreds or even thousands of barrels of oil and salt water are spilled. Still, North Dakota doesn’t require companies to protect these sites from lightning strikes.

Wayde Schafer is with the Sierra Club’s Dakotah Chapter. He says the recent run of saltwater spills are yet another sign that regulations here haven’t kept pace with oil development.

“Acts of God happen all the time but you can still take measures not to prevent the act but at least to anticipate the problems.”

And McKenzie County’s emergency manager, Karolin Rockvoy, says she wants everyone – bus drivers, school kids – to learn to recognize the signs of a salt water spill. That way they won’t just be relying on companies and their voluntary inspections to detect a leak.

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