That Oil Spill Standing Rock Protestors Are Worried About? It Already Happened

Despite blizzard conditions, military veterans march in support of the 'water protectors' at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 5, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

It seems the oil spill that Standing Rock protestors have been warning could occur already did, some 150 miles from where the demonstrators are camped. Ten days since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, officials have confirmed that another pipeline has leaked an estimated 176,000 gallons of crude oil just 150 miles away in Belfield.

A landowner discovered the spill from the Belle Fourche Pipeline on December 5. True Companies of Wyoming, which owns the pipeline, has cited a failure in their electronic monitoring equipment as the reason that the leak was not detected earlier. Two cows were found dead in the area of the spill, according to a report from Forum News Service, though the animals’ cause of death has not yet been confirmed. Currently 120 people are on location working to clean up the mess, with health department staff and the EPA overseeing the operation.

“This is definitely a significant spill,” says Karl Rockeman, director of Water Quality with the North Dakota Department of Health. “There is always a concern when there is an impact to water. Protection of our surface water is one of our primary concerns, in addition to the aquatic life in the creek affected by the spill. We are taking this very seriously.“

By the time the crude was contained, tens of thousands of gallons of the stuff had spilled into more than five miles of the Ash Coulee Creek running through private and federal land. The creek is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, but health department environment scientist Bill Suess told the Associated Press it appeared no oil reached the bigger river or drinking water sources. The North Dakota Industrial Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration, as well as the state health department are launching investigations.

For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the incident confirms the fears of an oil spill that contributed to their months long protest against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline under Lake Oahe, their primary supply for drinking water. An earlier plan sent the pipeline under the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the route after an environmental assessment showed it was close to municipal water sources.

It’s clear that the transport of crude oil by pipeline carries the potential for spills like this one. True Companies has a particularly troubled record among pipeline operators, reporting total spillage of 320,000 gallons of petroleum products in 36 incidents since 2006, according to the AP. But data from the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration shows there are hundreds of spills a year across the industry costing millions of dollars.