DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others in North Dakota mounted a massive protest against the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline, in part over concerns that any leak could contaminate drinking water. Now they are watching a different North Dakota pipeline that recently leaked crude into a creek. Inside Energy's Leigh Paterson reports on these risks.
LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: The leak in the Belle Fourche pipeline was discovered in far western North Dakota. Roughly 180,000 gallons have been spilled, much of it into the Ash Coulee Creek. Authorities say there is no threat to drinking water and that the crude is 100 percent contained. As for the efforts to clean up this mess...
WENDY OWENS: It is extremely cold.
PATERSON: That's pipeline company spokeswoman Wendy Owens, who says the weather is slowing down workers on the scene.
OWENS: It's so remote and the terrain is very, very rugged, so it's rough out there.
PATERSON: The leaking segment of the pipeline was built in the 1980s. Since then, construction materials and pressure monitoring equipment has improved and tighter regulations have been put in place.
CARL WEIMER: And it's hard to, you know, compare one company, especially that's had a pipeline in the ground for maybe 40 or 50 years now, to a brand new pipeline.
PATERSON: Carl Weimer is with a nonprofit called the Pipeline Safety Trust.
WEIMER: It's not just the old pipelines that fail. New ones can fail also.
PATERSON: And they do. Since 2010, according to federal data, operators have reported around 200 crude oil spills per year on average. Most of them are comparatively small, think a few bathtubs full or less. The Belle Fourche pipeline leak is the largest in North Dakota since 2013.
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BRIAN WILLIAMS: Difficult mission unfolding tonight on the Yellowstone River, a large oil spill that has dumped toxic chemicals into the water.
PATERSON: That's NBC's Brian Williams describing an oil spill in Montana in 2015 that leaked an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude into the river. At one point, tests showed traces of oil in the local drinking water. And that pipeline is operated by the same company that runs Belle Fourche. Now, generally, these incidents are low probability, high impact events. And John Stoody, with the Association of Oil Pipelines, says they remain the most efficient way to go.
JOHN STOODY: They're also the safest way to move crude oil and petroleum around.
PATERSON: The data to back up that claim are kind of tricky to pin down. But when you compare crude transported by pipeline versus crude transported by rail, pipelines appear safer. That's because while pipelines spill about 50 percent more than trains, they move more than three times as much crude. Elizabeth Herdes is a Denver-based attorney focusing on pipeline safety. She says that while that's true, it doesn't tell the whole story.
ELIZABETH HERDES: I think it's somewhat cold comfort to those who are actually experiencing an incident in their backyard, much like if we talked about if you're driving a car and, you know, we know it's safer to drive a car now because there's airbags and all these safety things. But if you're the one in the car accident, it doesn't seem any safer.
PATERSON: Those that have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline worry that safety equipment won't detect a leak. And this recent spill gives them pause because it wasn't pipeline safety equipment that detected the 180,000 gallons of crude leaking out of the pipeline, it was a local landowner. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.
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GREENE: Leigh Paterson, part of Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues.
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