(Editor’s note: This story includes updates.)
By Todd Melby
Unlike most people in this bustling boomtown, Steven Jensen rarely thinks about oil. Instead, the third-generation farmer worries about rain, the short autumn days and whether he’ll get his crops harvested before the first snow.
But oil found him.
On Sept. 29, Jensen, 55, was steering his combine through wheat fields when he happened upon a large swath of emptiness on his western North Dakota farm. Instead of gold-colored wheat, he spied black crude oil spewing from the ground.
“It was just coming out like a faucet,” he said.
Jensen had discovered a busted, underground oil pipeline — known as Tesoro Logistics LP — leaking with such force that the crude bubbled four to six inches above the surface. In the area of the spill, nothing remained of his wheat crop.
“It had just disintegrated,” he said.
By the time cleanup crews plugged it, an estimated 20,600 barrels of oil had seeped into the environment, making it one of the biggest U.S. oil accidents in recent years. The spill covered seven acres of Jensen’s land, which is located about nine miles northeast of Tioga.
Although Jensen reported the spill on the night he discovered it, the pipeline may have been leaking for days. While in the area four days earlier, Jensen said, “I could smell sweet gas, but I wasn’t getting too concerned.”
Neither are people in Tioga, a once quiet town that’s likely tripled in size since the Bakken boom exploded five years ago. “It’s oil and it’s flowing,” said Levi, a 32-year-old father of three who refused to give his last name. “There will be mishaps.”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Dan Williams, 46, a construction worker who lives in an apartment above the Model Bar in the city’s downtown. “These accidents happen.”
Williams, who moved here from Minnesota last year, does worry how the spill might affect President Obama’s willingness to approve construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. “If things like this keep happening, it’s going to affect that,” he said.
Outside the Rig Lounge, a bar on the city’s edge, Don Newland, a stout man wearing a brown fire retardant shirt, took a drag on a cigarette and said he hadn’t heard about the spill. Told of its size, Newland, who once worked on oil cleanup sites, said, “Yeah, that’s a big one.”
Jensen, the farmer who discovered the spill, thinks so too. “It’s an animal,” he said of the oozing crude. “It’s a creature that’s let loose and they are trying to get control of it.”
The Dakota Resource Council, a North Dakota-based group that describes its as “watchdogs of the prairie,” says the spill “should put to rest the calls for fewer regulations.” The cleanup is expected to take months.
In remote field, North Dakota oil boom suffers first big spill (Reuters, Oct. 10, 2013)
Corrosion may have led to pipeline leak: regulator (Reuters, Oct. 11, 2013)
Exclusive Greenpeace Photos of North Dakota Pipeline Oil Spill (EcoWatch, Oct. 14, 2013)
Tioga Oil Spill: Who Knew What and When (Oil Patch Dispatch, Oct. 15, 2013)
Feds: Lighting may be cause of ND oil spill (Associated Press, Nov. 6, 2013)
U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration page on Tioga spill (Updated by agency)
Location of spill: 9 miles northeast of Tioga, N.D.
Estimated number of barrels spilled: 20,600
Date of spill discovery: Sept. 29, 2013
Date of spill announcement: Oct. 10, 2013
Owner of pipeline: Tesoro Logistics
Government agency responsible for spill investigation: U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
All photos by Todd Melby, except photo of oil spill burnoff (first of several below). Oil spill burnoff photo by Renae VanBerkom Evensvold of Dakota Resource Council.