Returning soil to production after a spill

Landowners Steve and Patty Jensen stand in their former wheat field near Tioga, N.D., in September. An oil pipeline spilled about 20,600 barrels on the land in 2013. Photo by Amy Dalrymple, Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune

by Victoria Lusk
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Cleaning up crude oil can take time.

In fact, four years after Steve Jensen discovered that some 865,200 gallons of crude oil from a Tesoro Logistics pipeline had saturated his wheat field, crews are still working to remediate his land, he said during a recent phone interview.

Jensen was harvesting wheat on Sept. 29, 2013, when he found the spill from a pipeline that transported oil from the state’s Bakken region to a Tesoro Refinery in central North Dakota.

That spill tops the list of the 20 largest on U.S. soil since 2010, according to information from the Associated Press.

A leak along TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline in Marshall County was discovered Nov. 16. It’s estimated that 210,000 gallons leaked onto South Dakota farmland. It’s No. 18 on the list.

Because of Jensen’s experience he said he didn’t respond to news of the Marshall County leak with the “shock and awe that so many other people get.”

He said he is keeping tabs on what’s happening in the Amherst area.

“I compliment the company down there. A report was saying they actually detected something and had the pipeline shut down within 10 or 15 minutes. That’s quite commendable. Sure you hear a lot of big numbers, but that’s a big line,” Jensen said.

He grew up in the oil fields in North Dakota so he knows spills happen. But he’s confident that both his field and the field near Amherst will be able to return to their former uses.

“They’ll get it cleaned up and it’ll do fine growing crops,” Jensen said.

The Amherst land was grassland enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program. Administered by Farm Service Agency, it removes environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production for conservation purposes. In return for protecting the land, the property owner gets a payment.

TransCanada has begun the remediation phase, which means it is removing the soil, said Jennifer Link, spokeswoman for TransCanada. In the end, “the land will be returned to its original CRP capability,” she said.

Soil will be removed from the leak area to a temporary storage location on the property while thorough testing is conducted, she said.

Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist manager for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said TransCanada uses a geo-probe mobile device that put bores into the ground. That helps determine the extent of the contamination.

Based on the sample contamination levels, TransCanada has chosen to haul the soil to Clean Harbors’ Sawyer Landfill Facility in Sawyer, N.D., Walsh said. Sawyer is approximately 270 miles northwest of the Amherst site, and just southeast of Minot, N.D.

Clean Harbors declined comment.

An online company fact sheet notes the facility is a “fully permitted treatment and landfill site for non-hazardous industrial waste, liquids, solids and sludge …” and that among its typical customers are oil companies and oil-related companies.

“This is a standard process — to remove and excavate it to a landfill. It’s the preferred and best available option that takes the least amount of time,” Walsh said.

New soil and topsoil will be brought to the site and replace the contaminated soil, Link said.

The details of remediation are up to negotiations between the company and the landowner, Walsh said.

That’s one way Jensen’s land differs from that at the site of the Amherst leak.

Oil on Jensen’s land had penetrated a surface the size of seven football fields, he said. Crews removed the top 68 feet of soil and eventually processed nearly 1.3 trillion tons, he said.

Tesoro, which is now called Andeavor, and a remediation crew continue to work round-the-clock to clean Jensen’s soil and return the land it to him, he said. He worked with Andeavor and chose a different method of remediation than is being used by TransCanada in Marshall County.

There’s a process to clean it and not have to haul it to the landfills, he said. Essentially, the oil is being “baked” out of the soil through thermal absorption and then the soil is put back.

“The system we’re using up here, it’s not cheap,” he said. “But it puts the soil back into the ground where it came from and it’ll be productive again … There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We should be farming it next summer.”

Until then, the company continues to lease the land, including 75 acres for its equipment. That has replaced any farm income Jensen would be missing out on.

“Companies are pretty generous when they don’t know what’s ahead of them,” he said. “I don’t think they would have been as generous had they known they’d still be there four years later.”

Jensen is a third-generation farmer. When the land is ready, Jensen won’t necessarily immediately plant wheat, he said.

“I think we’ll start with some cover crops,” he said. “Some soil building material.”

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