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PHMSA Fines Dakota Pipeline Operator

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

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Upon completing inspections at Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a $93,000 fine to its operators.

According to the Notice of Probable Violation Proposed Civil Penalty and Proposed Compliance Order, the administration found that Energy Transfer violated regulations on drainage valves for stormwater and failed to correct hazards relating to at least one valve used for nitrogen release.

“At a field inspection of Johnsons Corner pump station, and during a subsequent review of records including the alarms generated in the operator's local station control system and SCADA system records, it was determined that multiple alarms occurred since commissioning of the pipeline indicating changes in relief valve’s nitrogen pressure (which effects the valve relief pressure set point),” PHMSA wrote in its notice.

Dakota Access Pipeline Background

In 2016, Energy Transfer Partners—a partnership made up of several subsidiaries and owns Sunoco Logistics—broke ground on the construction of the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile underground pipeline. Intended to carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, the project has seen many postponements, orders, reviews, and criticism.

Not long after construction began, the project hit a temporary delay when Sioux leaders suggested part of the pipeline route crossed through ancient burial lands. Iowa officials halted work in late May, but the state’s archaeologist said that the underground boring would not pose a significant disruption, and construction was back on by late June.

In December, the project was stalled again after a decision from the Army Corps of Engineers relayed that it would not allow an easement for construction of the 30-inch pipeline underneath the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.

However, by February 2017, the Corps announced that it would approve an easement. The new approval arrived two weeks after President Donald J. Trump issued a series of memoranda, one of which specifically asked the Corps to expedite a review of the easement ruling.

According to the Associated Press, the Corps concluded that no significant environmental issues plagued the pipeline project about running it underneath the Missouri River.

Also included among the memos was an invitation for TransCanada to re-submit its plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, which was rejected in 2015 by the Obama administration. Another memo called for new pipelines being built in the U.S. to be made of American materials as much as possible.

According to Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline was being constructed of “heavy-walled steel pipe that is nearly 50% thicker than required by law,” will be monitored remotely at all times, and will be regularly patrolled and inspected by air to ensure safety.

The same month the pipeline began operations in June 2017, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that the federal government did not adequately consider the pipeline’s impacts when it ruled earlier that year that the project could go forward. As a result, Boasberg said, the Corps would have to conduct a new environmental review—although, the pipeline could remain in service.

The judge’s ruling came as part of a suit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux, who argued that the pipeline threatens the safety and quality of their drinking water. In revisiting the matter, the opinion of the Corps made earlier that year, was again validated.

Despite previous environmental concerns and protests, last March, North Dakota’s Public Service Commission issued a vote favoring the expansion of the pipeline which will double its capacity to 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day. However, the proposal still needs additional permits and could face various legal challenges.

In April, Boasberg ordered the United States Army Corps of Engineers to perform a new, full environmental review on the project, specifically, showing how an oil spill under the Missouri River might affect the Sioux Tribe’s fishing and hunting rights; whether the project might disproportionately affect tribes and other at-risk, low-income communities; and whether the pipeline’s effects on the environment would be “highly controversial.”

In his ruling, Boasberg noted that that the Corps had not previously performed an adequate job in studying the risks or the infrastructure’s leak detection system.

“The many commenters in this case pointed to serious gaps in crucial parts of the Corps' analysis—to name a few, that the pipeline's leak-detection system was unlikely to work, that it was not designed to catch slow spills, that the operator's serious history of incidents had not been taken into account, that that the worst-case scenario used by the Corps was potentially only a fraction of what a realistic figure would be—and the Corps was not able to fill any of [the gaps in the analysis],” Boasberg said in a statement.

The new environmental review is expected to take one to two years to complete.

In January, Judge Boasberg declined to halt the pipeline’s construction during the environmental review. In addition, Boasberg also revoked an easement granted last summer regarding the crossing of the Missouri River.

Without an easement, the project is now considered an "encroachment" on federal land. Boasberg had set a hearing date for Feb. 10 so that the Corps, Energy Transfer, and tribes opposing the pipeline can discuss the impact of the D.C. Circuit ruling.

In response to the ruling, environmental group EarthJustice claims that the pipeline shouldn’t be allowed to operate until the Corps complete its review and can decide whether to reissue a federal permit granting easement for the pipeline to cross beneath Lake Oahe.

At the time, the group alongside leaders from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Yankton Sioux Tribe sought help from President Joe Biden. The group wrote to him personally, as he has the discretion to shut the pipeline down.

Safety Violations

According to the PHMSA notice, the Johnsons Corner valve issue has been known to trigger thousands of alarms since the pipeline first launched operations. In addition to the identified valve issues in 2019, the administration also pointed out several other safety violations, including outdated references to its own operations manuals, as well as failure to update an integrity management program in keeping with practical operations.

However, the notice did not identify any instances of oil leaks.

Of the penalties that were cited, the PHMSA recommended a preliminarily assessed a civil penalty of $93,200.

In response to the letter, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer issued a statement saying, “The letter we received from PHMSA contained the results of a standard audit that was completed in early 2019. All but one of the items identified have already been addressed (or are in process of being addressed). DAPL will address shortly the one remaining issue that PHSMA responded to for the first time this week.”


Tagged categories: Environmental Controls; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Oil and Gas; PHMSA; Pipelines; Program/Project Management; Regulations; Transportation; Violations

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