MANDAREE, N.D. (AP) — Tribal leaders switched to an alternative source of water Wednesday for one town on an American Indian reservation in North Dakota following a substantial leak from a saltwater pipeline.
Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Health Department, said the spill was reported Tuesday but officials did not have any information on volumes or if the brine had reached Bear Den Bay, a tributary to Lake Sakakawea. The lake, a reservoir of the Missouri River, provides drinking water to several communities on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes in the heart of North Dakota's booming oil patch.
Saltwater is an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling that can be 20 times saltier than ocean water.
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said in a statement that "there are no specific concerns over the water safety" but that tribal officials closed the water intake to Mandaree as a precaution without elaborating on what steps were taken. Hall said the briny water did not appear to have reached Lake Sakakawea.
Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Services Inc., owner of the pipeline, said in a statement Wednesday that the spill was contained and cleanup was underway. The company said it was investigating the cause of the leak but would not comment beyond its statement.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency said an investigator was heading to the site Wednesday afternoon.
Roberts said damage from the toxic spill could be seen Wednesday.
"We've got dead trees, dead grasses, dead bushes, dying bushes," Roberts said.
Karolin Rockvoy, a McKenzine County Emergency manager, said the spill appeared to have gone undetected for some time.
"Looking at vegetation, it didn't happen yesterday," she said. "I can guarantee you that."
The number of saltwater spills in North Dakota has grown with the state's soaring oil production.
North Dakota produced 25.5 million barrels of briny water in 2012, the latest figures available. A barrel is 42 gallons. There were 141 pipeline leaks reported in North Dakota in 2012, 99 of which spilled about 8,000 barrels of the saltwater. About 6,150 barrels of the spilled saltwater was recovered, state regulators said.
In 2006, a broken oil pipeline belched more than a million gallons of saltwater into a northwestern North Dakota creek, aquifer and pond. The cleanup efforts are ongoing at that site, which has been called the worst environmental disaster in state history.
The ruptured pipeline allowed briny water to spew unnoticed for weeks into a tributary of the Yellowstone River near Alexander and caused a massive die-off of fish, turtles and plants.
That spill came during the infancy of North Dakota's oil boom. Now, a network of saltwater pipelines extends to hundreds of disposal wells in western North Dakota, where the briny water is pumped underground for permanent storage.
Proposed legislation to mandate flow meters and cutoff switches on such lines was overwhelmingly rejected last year in the Legislature.
MacPherson reported from Bismarck, N.D.