Posts

The Falcon: Water Crossings & Hazards

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this section of the Falcon Public EIA Project, we explore the hydrological and geological conditions of the pipeline’s construction areas. We first identify the many streams, wetlands, and ponds the Falcon must cross, as well as describe techniques Shell will likely use in these water crossings. The second segment of this section highlights how the areas in the Falcon’s path are known for their complex geological features, such as porous karst limestone and shallow water tables that can complicate construction.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • Intersects 319 streams; 361 additional streams located only 500ft from construction areas
  • Intersects 174 wetlands; 470 additional wetlands located only 500ft from construction areas
  • Majority of crossings will be open cuts and dry-ditch trenching
  • A total of 19 horizontal directional drilling (HDD) sites; 40 conventional boring sites
  • 25 miles of pipeline overlap karst limestone formations, including 9 HDD sites
  • 240 groundwater wells within 1/4 mile of the pipeline; 24 within 1,000ft of an HDD site

Map of Falcon water crossings and hazards

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down the Falcon’s risks to water bodies. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible as you zoom in. A number of additional features of the map are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. These include information on geological features, water tables, soil erosion characteristics, as well as drinking reservoir boundaries. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Defining Water Bodies

The parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio where the Falcon pipeline will be built lie within the Ohio River Basin. This landscape contains thousands of streams, wetlands, and lakes, making it one of the most water rich regions in the United States. Pipeline operators are required to identify waters likely to be impacted by their project. This two-step process involves first mapping out waters provided by the U.S. Geological Survey’s national hydrological dataset. Detailed field surveys are then conducted in order to locate additional waters that may not yet be accounted for. Many of the streams and wetlands we see in our backyards are not represented in the national dataset because conditions can change on the ground over time. Yet, plans for crossing these must also be present in pipeline operator’s permit applications.

Streams

Streams (and rivers) have three general classifications. “Perennial” streams flow year-round, are typically supplied by smaller up-stream headwaters, and are supplemented by groundwater. In a sense, the Ohio River would be the ultimate perennial stream of the region as all smaller and larger streams eventually end up there. “Intermittent” streams flow for only a portion of the year and are dry at times, such as during the summer when water tables are low. Finally, “ephemeral” streams flow only during precipitation events.

These classifications are important because they can determine the extent of aquatic habitat that streams can support. Working in streams that have no dry period can put aquatic lifeforms at elevated risk. For this and other reasons, many states further designate streams based on their aquatic life “use” and water quality. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP uses the designations: Warm Water Fishes (WWF), Trout Stocked (TSF), Cold Water Fisheries (CWF) and Migratory Fishes (MF). Streams with exceptional water quality may receive an additional designation of High Quality Waters (HQ) and Exceptional Value Waters (EV).

Wetlands

Similar to streams, wetlands also have unique designations. These are based on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ national wetlands inventory. Wetlands are generally defined as “lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water.” As such, wetlands are categorized by their location (such as a tidal estuary or an inland wetland that lacks flowing water), its substrate (bedrock, sand, etc.), and plant life that might be present. While there are hundreds of such categories, only four pertain to the wetlands present in the regions where the Falcon pipeline will be built. Their designations roughly translate to the following:

  • Palustrine Emergent (PEM): Marshes and wet meadows hosting perennial small trees, shrubs, mosses, or lichens
  • Palustrine Shrub (PSS): Similar to PEMs, but characterized by also having well-established shrubs
  • Palustrine Forested (PFO): Similar to PEMs and PSSs, but having trees larger than 6 meters high
  • Palustrine Unconsolidated Bottom (PUB) and Palustrine Opem Water (POW) (aka ponds)

Pipeline operators are required to report the crossing length of each wetland they will encounter, as well as the area of permanent and temporary disturbance that would occur in each of these wetlands. When building the pipeline, operators are required to ensure that all measures are taken to protect wetlands by minimizing impacts to plant life, as well as by taking “upland protective measures” to prevent sedimentation runoff during precipitation events. When undergoing FERC EIA scrutiny, operators are also required to limit the width of wetland construction areas to 75 feet or less.

Crossing Methods

Open-Cut Trenching

Pipeline operators use a variety of methods when crossing streams, wetlands, and ponds. Shorter length crossings often employ a rudimentary trench. After the cuts, construction crews attempts to repair damage done in the process of laying the pipeline. For longer crossings, operators can use boring techniques to go underneath water features.

Open-cut trenching

There are two general types of trenches. The first, “open-cut” crossings, are typically used for smaller waterbodies, such as in intermittent streams where flow may not be present during time of construction, or when construction can be completed in a short period of time (typically 24-48 hours). In this process, a trench is laid through the water body without other provisions in place.

The second type, “dry-ditch” crossing, are required by FERC for waterbodies up to 30 feet wide “that are state-designated as either coldwater or significant coolwater or warmwater fisheries, or federally-designated as critical habitat.” In these spaces, pumps are used to transfer stream flow around the area where trenching occurs. In places where sensitive species are present, dry-ditches must include a flume to allow these species to pass through the work area.

Conventional Boring

Conventional boring consists of creating a tunnel for the pipeline to be installed below roads, waterbodies, and other sensitive resources. Bore pits are excavated on either sides of the site. A boring machine is then used to tunnel under the resource and the pipeline is pushed through the bore hole.

Horizontal Directional Drilling

In more difficult or lengthy crossings, operators may choose to bore under a water feature, road, or neighborhood. Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) involves constructing large staging areas on either side of the crossing. A large drill bit is piloted through the ground along with thousands of gallons of water and bentonite clay for lubricant (commonly referred to as drilling muds). HDDs are designed to protect sensitive areas, but operators prefer not to use them as HDDs can be expensive and require in-depth planning in order for things to go well.

Bentonite sediment pollutes a stream at a Mariner East HDD spill site
(source: Washington, PA, Observer-Reporter)


An example of what happens when things are rushed can be seen in Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline. The PA DEP has cited Sunoco for over 130 inadvertent returns (accidental releases of drilling muds) since construction began. These spills led to damaged water wells and heavy sedimentation in protected streams, as exemplified in the image above. Making matters worse, Sunoco later violated terms of a settlement that required them to re-survey before recommencing construction. See FracTracker’s article on these spills.

Footprint of the Falcon

The overwhelming majority of Falcon’s water body crossings will be executed with either open-cut or dry-ditch methods. There are 40 locations where conventional boring will be used, but only a 3 are used for crossing water resources. Shell intends to use 19 HDDs and, of these, only 13 are used for crossing water bodies of some kind (the longest of which crosses the Ohio River). All other conventional and HDD boring locations will be used to cross under roads and built structures. This is not entirely unusual for pipelines. However, we noted a number of locations where one would expect to see HDDs but did not, such as in the headwaters of the Ambridge and Tappen Reservoirs, as was seen in the images above.

Stream Impacts

Shell identified and/or surveyed a total of 993 stream sections in planning for the Falcon’s construction. As shown on FracTracker’s map, the pipeline’s workspace and access roads will directly intersect 319 of these streams with the following classifications: perennial (96), ephemeral (79), and intermittent (114). An additional 361 streams are located only 500ft from construction areas.

A number of these streams have special designations assigned by state agencies. For instance, in Pennsylvania, we found 10 stream segments listed as Trout Stocked (TS), which are shown on our interactive map.

Crossing HQ headwater streams of the Ambridge Reservoir

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Perhaps more concerning, the Falcon will cross tributaries to the Service Creek watershed 13 times. These feed into three High Quality Cold Water Fishes (HQ/CWF) headwater streams of the Ambridge Reservoir in Beaver County, PA, shown in the image above. They also support the endangered Southern Redbelly Dace (discussed in greater depth here). On the eastern edge of the watershed, the Falcon will cross the raw water line leading out of the reservoir.

The reservoir supplies 6.5 million gallons of water a day to five townships in Beaver County (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and four townships in Allegheny County (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres & Edgeworth). This includes drinking water services to 30,000 people.

We found a similar concern in Ohio where the Falcon will cross protected headwaters in the Tappan Reservoir watershed at six different locations. The Tappan is the primary drinking water source for residents in Scio. Below is a page from Shell’s permit applications to the PA DEP outlining the crossing of one of the Ambridge Reservoir’s CWF/HQ headwater streams.

Wetland Impacts

Shell identified a total of 682 wetland features relevant to Falcon’s construction, as well as 6 ponds. Of these, the pipeline’s workspace and access roads will directly intersect 174 wetlands with the following classifications: PEM (141), PSS (13), PFO (7), PUB (10), POW (3). An additional 470 of these wetlands, plus the 6 ponds, are located only 500ft from construction areas.

Example 1: Lower Raccoon Creek

A few wetland locations stand out as problematic in Shell’s construction plans. For instance, wetlands that drain into Raccoon Creek in Beaver County will be particularly vulnerable in two locations. The first is in Potter Township, where the Falcon will run along a wooded ridge populated by half a dozen perennial and intermittent streams that lead directly to a wetland of approximately 14 acres in size, seen below. Complicating erosion control further, Shell’s survey data shows that this ridge is susceptible to landslides, shown in the first map below in dotted red.

Landslide areas along Raccoon Creek wetlands and streams

This area is also characterized by the USGS as having a “high hazard” area for soil erosion, as seen in this second image. Shell’s engineers referenced this soil data in selecting their route. The erosion hazard status within 1/4 mile of the Falcon is a layer on our map and can be activated in the full-screen version.

High erosion hazard zones along Raccoon Creek

Shell’s permit applications to the PA DEP requires plans be submitted for erosion and sedimentation control of all areas along the Falcon route. Below are the pages that pertain to these high hazard areas.

Example 2: Independence Marsh

The other wetland area of concern along Raccoon Creek is found in Independence Township. Here, the Falcon will go under the Creek using horizontal drilling (highlighted in bright green), a process discussed in the next section. Nevertheless, the workspace needed to execute the crossing is within the designated wetland itself. An additional 15 acres of wetland lie only 300ft east of the crossing but are not accounted for in Shell’s data.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

This unidentified wetland is called Independence Marsh, considered the crown jewel of the Independence Conservancy’s watershed stewardship program. Furthermore, the marsh and the property where the HDD will be executed are owned by the Beaver County Conservation District, meaning that the CCD signed an easement with Shell to cross publicly-owned land.

Independence Marsh, unidentified in Shell’s survey data

 

Groundwater Hazards

The Falcon’s HDD locations offer a few disturbing similarities to what caused the Mariner East pipeline spills. Many of Sunoco’s failures were due to inadequately conducted (or absent) geophysical surveys prior to drilling that failed to identify karst limestone formations and shallow groundwater tables, which then led to drilling muds entering nearby streams and groundwater wells.

Karst Limestone

Karst landscapes are known for containing sinkholes, caves, springs, and surface water streams that weave in and out of underground tunnels. Limestone formations are where we are most likely to see karst landscapes along the Falcon’s route.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

In fact, more than 25 of the Falcon’s 97 pipeline miles will be laid within karst landscapes, including 9 HDD sites. However, only three of these HDDs sites are identified in Shell’s data as candidates for potential geophysical survey areas. The fact that the geology of the other 10 HDD sites will not be investigated is a concern.

One site where a geophysical survey is planned can be seen in the image below where the Falcon crosses under PA Highway 576. Note that this image shows a “geological formations” layer (with limestone in green). This layer shows the formation types within 1/4 mile of the Falcon and can activated in the full-screen version of our interactive map.

A potential HDD geophysical survey area in karst limestone

Water Tables

We also assessed the Falcon’s HDDs relative to the groundwater depths and nearby private groundwater wells. The USGS maintains information on minimum water table depths at different times of the year. In the image below we see the optional “water table depth” layer activated on the FracTracker map. The groundwater at this HDD site averages 20ft on its western side and only 8ft deep on the eastern side.

Shallow groundwater and private wells near a planned HDD site

Groundwater Wells

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Also seen in the above image is the “groundwater wells” layer from the FracTracker map. We found 240 private water wells within 1/4 mile of the Falcon. This data is maintained by the PA Department of Natural Resources as well as by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Comparable GIS data for West Virginia were not readily available thus not shown on our map.

While all of these wells should be assessed for their level of risk with pipeline construction, the subset of wells nearest to HDD sites deserve particular attention. In fact, Shell’s data highlights 24 wells that are within 1,000 feet of a proposed HDD site. We’ve isolated the groundwater wells and HDD sites in a standalone map for closer inspection below. The 24 most at-risk wells are circled in blue.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

* * *

Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

Falcon Pipeline: Cumulative Development & Compounded Risks

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this final section of the Falcon Public EIA Project, we explore the Falcon pipeline’s entanglements with a region already impacted by a long history of energy development. Featured in this article are where the Falcon pipeline intersects underground mining facilities, strip mines, other hazardous pipelines, active oil and gas wells, as well as a very large compressor station. We utilize this information to locate spaces where cumulative development also has the potential for compounded risk.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • 20 miles of the Falcon run through under-mined areas; 5.6 miles through active mines
  • 18 miles of the Falcon run through surface-mined areas; also coal slurry waste site
  • Shares a right-of-way with Mariner West pipeline for 4 miles in Beaver County
  • 11 well pads, as well as a compressor station, are within the potential impact radius

Map of Falcon relative to mined areas and other energy-related development

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down where the Falcon intersects areas that have experienced other forms of energy development. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible as you zoom in. A number of additional features of the map are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. These include information on geological features, water tables, soil erosion characteristics, as well as drinking reservoir boundaries. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work


Mined Lands

The Falcon pipeline intersects a surprising number of active and inactive/abandoned mine lands. While the location of active mines is fairly easy to obtain from mine operators, finding data on abandoned mines is notoriously difficult. State agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), have digitized many legacy maps, but these resources are known to be incomplete and inaccurate in many locations.

AECOM’s engineers used data layers on active and abandoned mine lands maintained by state agencies in OH, WV, and PA. FracTracker obtained this data, as well, as shown on the interactive map. Shell states in their permits that AECOM’s engineers also went through a process of obtaining and digitizing paper maps in areas with questionable mine maps.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Shell states that their analysis shows that 16.8 miles of the Falcon pipeline travel through under-mined areas. Our analysis using the same dataset suggests the figure is closer to 20 miles. Of these 20 miles of pipeline:

  • 5.6 miles run through active coal mines and are located in Cadiz Township, OH (Harrison Mining Co. Nelms Mine); Ross Township, OH (Rosebud Mining Co. Deep Mine 10); and in Greene Township, PA (Rosebud Mining Co. Beaver Valley Mine). 
  • More than 18 miles run through areas that have been historically surface-mined (some overlapping under-mined areas).
  • Of those 18 miles, 1.5 miles run through an active surface mine located in Cadiz Township, OH, managed by Oxford Mining Company.

Beaver Valley Mine

The Beaver Valley Mine in Greene Township, PA, appeared to be of particular importance in Shell’s analysis. Of the three active mines, Shell maintained an active data layer with the mine’s underground cell map for reference in selecting routes, seen in the image below. Note how the current route changed since the map was originally digitized, indicating that a shift was made to accommodate areas around the mine. The FracTracker interactive map shows the mine based on PA DEP data, which is not as precise as the mine map AECOM obtained from Rosebud Mining.

Digitized map of Beaver Valley Mine

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Rosebud Mining idled its Beaver Valley Mine in 2016 due to declining demand for coal. However, Rosebud appears to be expanding its workforce at other mines in the area due to changing economic and political circumstances. We don’t know exactly why this particular mine was highlighted in Shell’s analysis, or why the route shifted, as it is not directly addressed in Shell’s permit applications. Possibilities include needing to plan around areas that are known to be unfit for the pipeline, but also perhaps areas that may be mined in the future if the Beaver Valley Mine were to restart operations.

Coal Slurry Site, Imperial PA

As discussed in other segments of the Falcon Public EIA Project, Shell intends to execute 19 horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operations at different sites along the pipeline. A cluster of these are located in Allegheny and Washington counties, PA, with extensive historical surface mining operations. A 2003 DEP report commented on this region, stating:

All of the coal has been underground mined. Most of the coal ribs and stumps (remnants from the abandoned underground mine) have been surface mined… The extensive deep mining, which took place from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, has had a severe effect on groundwater and surface water in this watershed.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Shell’s applications note that AECOM did geotechnical survey work in this and other surface-mined areas co-located with proposed HDD operations, concluding that the ”majority of rock encountered was shale, sandstone, limestone, and claystone.” However, at one proposed HDD (called “HOU-06”) the Falcon will cross a coal waste site identified in the permits as “Imperial Land Coal Slurry” along with a large Palustrine Emergent (PEM) wetland along Potato Garden Run, seen below.

A Falcon HDD crossing under a wetland and coal slurry site

Foreign Pipelines

In addition to its entanglements with legacy coal mining, the Falcon will be built in a region heavily traveled by oil and gas pipelines. More than 260 “foreign pipelines” carrying oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids, were identified by AECOM engineers when selecting the Falcon’s right-of-way (note that not all of these are directly crossed by the Falcon).

Owners of these pipelines run the gamut, including companies such as Williams, MarkWest, Columbia, Kinder Morgan, Energy Transfer Partners, Momentum, Peoples Gas, Chesapeake, and Range Resources. Their purposes are also varied. Some are gathering lines that move oil and gas from well pads, others are midstream lines connecting things like compressor stations to processing plants, others still are distribution lines that eventually bring gas to homes and businesses. FracTracker took note of these numbers and their significance, but did not have the capacity to document all of them for our interactive map.

Shared Rights-of-Way

However, we did include one pipeline, the Mariner West, because of its importance in the Falcon’s construction plans. Mariner West was built in 2011-2013 as part of an expanding network of pipelines initially owned by Sunoco Pipeline but now operated by Energy Transfer Partners. The 10-inch pipeline transports 50,000 barrels of ethane per day from the Separator plant in Houston, PA, to processing facilities in Canada. Another spur in this network is the controversial Mariner East 2

Mariner West is pertinent to the Falcon because the two pipelines will share the same right-of-way through a 4-mile stretch of Beaver County, PA, as shown below.

The Falcon and Mariner West sharing a right-of-way

Reuse of existing rights-of-way is generally considered advantageous by pipeline operators and regulatory agencies. The logistics of sharing pipelines can be complicated, however. As noted in Shell’s permit applications:   

Construction coordination will be essential on the project due to the numerous parties involved and the close proximity to other utilities. Accurate line location was completed; however, verification will also be key, along with obtaining proper crossing design techniques from the foreign utilities. A meeting with all of pipeline companies will be held to make sure that all of the restrictions are understood prior to starting construction, and that they are documented on the construction alignment sheets/bid documents for the contractor(s). This will save a potential delay in the project. It will also make working around the existing pipelines safe.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

Shell’s attention to coordinating with other utility companies is no doubt important, as is their recognition of working near existing pipelines as a safety issue. There are elevated risks with co-located pipelines when they come into operation. This was seen in a major pipeline accident in Salem Township, PA, in 2016. One natural gas line exploded, destroying nearby homes, and damaged three adjacent pipelines that took more than a year to come back onlineThese findings raise the question of whether or not Class Location and High Consequence Area assessments for the Falcon should factor for the exponential risks of sharing a right-of-way with Mariner West.

Oil & Gas Extraction

The remaining features included on our map relate to oil and gas extraction activities. The Falcon will carry ethane from the three cryogenic separator plants at the pipeline’s source points. But the wet, fracked gas that supplies those plants also comes from someplace, and these are the many thousands of unconventional gas wells spread across the Marcellus and Utica shale.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue83f’ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

We found 11 unconventional oil and gas pads, hosting a combined 48 well heads, within the Falcon’s 940-foot PIR. We also found a large compressor station operated by Range Resources, located in Robinson Township, PA. This is shown below, along with a nearby gas pad.

A well pad and compressor station in Falcon’s PIR

We noted these well pads and the compressor station because Class Location and HCA risk analysis may account for proximity to occupied businesses and homes, but does not always consider a pipeline’s proximity to other high-risk industrial sites. Nevertheless, serious incidents have occurred at well pads and processing facilities that could implicate nearby hazardous liquid pipelines. By the same measure, an accident with the Falcon could implicate one of these facilities, given they are all within the Falcon’s blast zone.

* * *

Related Articles

SCOTT STOCKDILL/NORTH DAKOTA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH VIA AP - for oil spills in North Dakota piece

Oil Spills in North Dakota: What does DAPL mean for North Dakota’s future?

By Kate van Munster, Data & GIS Intern, and
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Pipelines are hailed as the “safest” way to transport crude oil and other refinery products, but federal and state data show that pipeline incidents are common and present major environmental and human health hazards. In light of current events that have green-lighted multiple new pipeline projects, including several that had been previously denied because of the environmental risk they pose, FracTracker Alliance is continuing to focus on pipeline issues.

In this article we look at the record of oil spills, particularly those resulting from pipeline incidents that have occurred in North Dakota, in order to determine the risk presented by the soon-to-be completed Dakota Access Pipeline.

Standing Rock & the DAPL Protest

To give readers a little history on this pipeline, demonstrators in North Dakota, as well as across the country, have been protesting a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lands since April 2016. The tribe’s momentum has shifted the focus from protests at the build site to legal battles and a march on Washington DC. The pipeline section they are protesting has at this point been largely finished, and is slated to begin pumping oil by April 2017. This final section of pipe crosses under Lake Oahe, a large reservoir created on the Missouri River, just 1.5 miles north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Lands. The tribe has condemned the pipeline because it cuts through sacred land and threatens their environmental and economic well-being by putting their only source for drinking water in jeopardy.

Pipelines

… supposedly safest form of transporting fossil fuels, but …

Pipeline proponents claim that pipelines are the safest method of transporting oil over long distances, whereas transporting oil with trucks has a higher accident and spill rate, and transporting with trains presents a major explosive hazards.

However, what makes one form of land transport safer than the others is dependent on which factor is being taken into account. When considering the costs of human death and property destruction, pipelines are indeed the safest form of land transportation. However, for the amount of oil spilled, pipelines are second-worst, beaten only by trucks. Now, when it comes to environmental impact, pipelines are the worst.

What is not debatable is the fact that pipelines are dangerous, regardless of factor. Between 2010 and October 2016 there was an average of 1.7 pipeline incidents per day across the U.S. according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). These incidents have resulted in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and over $3.4 billion in property damage. More than half of these incidents were caused by equipment failure and corrosion (See Figures 1 and 2).

incidentcounts

Figure 1. Impacts of pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016 (data through September 2016). Original Analysis

pipeline incidents causes

Figure 2. Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016. Original Analysis

Recent Spills in North Dakota

To dig into the risks posed in North Dakota more specifically, let’s take a look at some spill data in the state.

Map 1. Locations of Spills in North Dakota, with volume represented by size of markers

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

In North Dakota alone there have been 774 oil spill incidents between 2010 and September 2016, spilling an average of 5,131 gallons of oil per incident. The largest spill in North Dakota in recent history, and one of the largest onshore oil spills in the U.S., took place in September 2013. Over 865,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a wheat field and contaminated about 13 acres. The spill was discovered several days later by the farmer who owns the field, and was not detected by remote monitors. The state claims that no water sources were contaminated and no wildlife were hurt. However, over three years of constant work later, only about one third of the spill has been recovered.

This spill in 2013 may never be fully cleaned up. Cleanup attempts have even included burning away the oil where the spill contaminated wetlands.

More recently, a pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a North Dakota stream about 150 miles away from the DAPL protest camps. Electronic monitoring equipment, which is part of a pipeline’s safety precautions, did not detect the leak. Luckily, a landowner discovered the leak on December 5, 2016 before it got worse, and it was quickly contained. However, the spill migrated nearly 6 miles down the Ash Coulee Creek and fouled a number of private and U.S. Forest lands. It has also been difficult to clean up due to snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Even if a spill isn’t as large, it can still have a major effect. In July 2016, 66,000 gallons of heavy oil, mixed with some natural gas, spilled into the North Saskatchewan River in Canada. North Battleford and the city of Prince Albert had to shut off their drinking water intake from the river and were forced to get water from alternate sources. In September, 2 months later, the affected communities were finally able to draw water from the river again.

Toxicology of Oil

Hydrocarbons and other hazardous chemicals

Crude oil is a mixture of various hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are compounds that are made primarily of carbon and hydrogen. The most common forms of hydrocarbons in crude oil are paraffins. Crude oil also contains naphthenes and aromatics such as benzene, and many other less common molecules. Crude oil can also contain naturally occurring radioactive materials and trace metals. Many of these compounds are toxic and carcinogenic.

hydrocarbons

Figure 3. Four common hydrocarbon molecules containing hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Image from Britannica

Crude oil spills can contaminate surface and groundwater, air, and soil. When a spill is fresh, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, quickly evaporate into the air. Other components of crude oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can remain in the environment for years and leach into water.

Plants, animals, and people can sustain serious negative physical and biochemical effects when they come in contact with oil spills. People can be exposed to crude oil through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation. Expsure can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, and could cause “dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, confusion, and anemia.” VOCs can be inhaled and are highly toxic and carcinogenic. PAHs can also be carcinogenic and have been shown to damage fish embryos. When animals are exposed to crude oil, it can damage their liver, blood, and other tissue cells. It can also cause infertility and cancer. Crops exposed to crude oil become less nutritious and are contaminated with carcinogens, radioactive materials, and trace metals. Physically, crude oil can completely cover plants and animals, smothering them and making it hard for animals to stay warm, swim, or fly.

An Analysis of Spills in ND

Below we have analyzed available spill data for North Dakota, including the location and quantity of such incidents.

North Dakota saw an average of 111 crude oil spills per year, or a total of 774 spills from 2010 to October 2016. The greatest number of spills occurred in 2014 with a total of 163. But 2013 had the largest spill with 865,200 gallons and also the highest total volume of oil spilled in one year of 1.3 million gallons. (Table 1)

Table 1. Data on all spills from 2010 through October 2016. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Jan-Oct 2016
Number of Spills 55 80 77 126 163 117 156
Total Volume (gallons) 332,443 467,544 424,168 1,316,910 642,521 615,695 171,888
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 6,044 5,844 5,509 10,452 3,942 5,262 1,102
Largest Spill (gallons) 158,928 106,050 58,758 865,200 33,600 105,000 64,863

The total volume of oil spilled from 2010 to October 2016 was nearly 4 million gallons, about 2.4 million of which was not contained. Most spills took place at wellheads, but the largest spills occurred along pipelines. (Table 2)

Table 2. Spills by Source. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  Wellhead Vehicle Accident Storage Pipeline Equipment Uncontained All Spills
Number of Spills 694 1 12 54 13 364 774
Total Volume (gallons) 2,603,652 84 17,010 1,281,798 68,623 2,394,591 3,971,169
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 3,752 84 1,418 23,737 5,279 6,579 5,131
Largest Spill (gallons) 106,050 84 10,416 865,200 64,863 865,200 865,200

A. Sensitive Areas Impacted

Spills that were not contained could potentially affect sensitive lands and waterways in North Dakota. Sensitive areas include Native American Reservations, waterways, drinking water aquifers, parks and wildlife habitat, and cities. Uncontained spill areas overlapped, and potentially contaminated, 5,875 square miles of land and water, and 408 miles of streams.

Drinking Water Aquifers – 2,482.3 total square miles:

  • Non-Community Aquifer – 0.3 square miles
  • Community Aquifer – 36 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer
  • Surficial Aquifer – 2,446 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer

A large area of potential drinking water (surficial aquifers) are at risk of contamination. Of the aquifers that are in use, aquifers for community use have larger areas that are potentially contaminated than those for non-community use.

Native American Tribal Reservation

  • Fort Berthold, an area of 1,569 square miles

Cities – 67 total square miles

  • Berthold
  • Dickinson
  • Flaxton
  • Harwood
  • Minot
  • Petersburg
  • Spring Brook
  • Stanley
  • West Fargo

Map 2. Areas where Oil Spills Present Public Health Threats

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

B. Waterways Where Spills Have Occurred

  • Floodplains – 73 square miles of interconnected floodplains
  • Streams – 408 miles of interconnected streams
  • Of the 364 oil spills that have occurred since 2010, 229 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway
  • Of the 61 Uncontained Brine Spills that have occurred since 2001, 38 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway.

If a spill occurs in a floodplain during or before a flood and is uncontained, the flood waters could disperse the oil over a much larger area. Similarly, contaminated streams can carry oil into larger rivers and lakes. Explore Map 3 for more detail.

Map 3. Oil Spills in North Dakota Waterways

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

C. Parks & Wildlife Habitat Impacts

1,684 total square miles

Habitat affected

  • National Grasslands – on 1,010 square miles of interconnected areas
  • United States Wildlife Refuges – 84 square miles of interconnected areas
  • North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas – 24 square miles of interconnected areas
  • Critical Habitat for Endangered Species – 566 square miles of interconnected areas

The endangered species most affected by spills in North Dakota is the Piping Plover. Explore Map 4 for more detail.

Map 4. Wildlife Areas Impacted by Oil Spills

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Methods

Using ArcGIS software, uncontained spill locations were overlaid on spatial datasets of floodplains, stream beds, groundwater regions, sensitive habitats, and other sensitive regions.

The average extent (distance) spilled oil traveled from uncontained spill sites was calculated to 400 meters. This distance was used as a buffer to approximate contact of waterways, floodplains, drinking water resources, habitat, etc. with uncontained oil spills.

Oil Spills in North Dakota Analysis References:


Cover Photo: The site of a December 2016 pipeline spill in North Dakota. Credit: Scott Stockdill/North Dakota Department of Health via AP