BISMARCK, N.D. — It took nearly two weeks for North Dakota officials to tell the public about an autumn pipeline rupture that caused more than 20,000 barrels of crude to ooze across a northwestern wheat field.
In response to extensive media coverage and criticism from environmental groups, the North Dakota Health Department will launch a website sometime this week that will enable the public to monitor reported oil spills and other hazardous leaks.
Dave Glatt, chief of the department's environmental health section, said Monday that website visitors will be able to track recent spills and those that happened as far back as 1975.
"All of the historical numbers of the spills we have had will be on there," Glatt said. "And we will be updating it manually about two times a week."
The website did not have a dedicated Internet address on Monday.
The massive spill from a Tesoro Corp. pipeline that was discovered by a Tioga farmer in September, and the incident exposed that state regulators had known about the spill but failed to notify the public until The Associated Press asked about it.
The agency said that while companies must notify the state of any spills, the regulators don't have to release that information to the public, which is not unusual in oil-producing states.
"It's a long time coming and a step in the right direction and something we've been asking for, for a while," Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, said about the spill data that's designed to be easily tracked by the public.
Some regulators had said spill data was public record and available upon request, but Morrison said it was near impossible to access such information until now, unless one already knew the specifics of a spill.
"They stonewalled, put up roadblocks and made it as difficult as possible to get," said Morrison, who heads the environmental-minded landowner group with more than 700 members in North Dakota.
Glatt said regulators already had planned a publicly accessible spill website at least two months before the Tesoro pipeline rupture near Tioga.
"We had been thinking about doing this since last summer but the Tesoro spill obviously expedited the timeline," he said.
The North Dakota Health Department was told about the spill hours after it happened on Sept. 29. Although the state initially thought just 750 barrels of oil was involved, it turned out to be one of the largest onshore spills in U.S. history — an estimated 20,600 barrels covering 7.3 acres of land, or about the size of seven football fields. Regulators said the spill caused no damage to water or wildlife.
Tesoro estimated it would cost $4 million to clean up. Glatt said that effort is expected to take about two years and the company has recovered about 5,000 barrels of oil so far.