US waits 11 days to tell public about oil spill

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Associated Press

Posted on October 11, 2013 at 5:01 PM

BISMARCK, North Dakota (AP) — When a pipeline rupture sent more than 20,000 barrels of crude spewing across a North Dakota wheat field, it took nearly two weeks for officials to tell the public about it.

The break in a Tesoro Corp. pipeline happened in a remote area, and officials say no water was contaminated or wildlife hurt. But environmentalists are skeptical and say it's an example of a boom industry operating too cozily with state regulators.

"It shows an attitude of our current state government and what they think of the public," said Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded landowner group with more than 700 members in North Dakota. "It's definitely worrisome. There is a pattern in current state government to not involve the public."

The North Dakota Health Department was told about the spill on Sept. 29, after a farmer whose combine's tires were coated in crude discovered oil spewing and gurgling from the ground. Although the state initially thought just 750 barrels of oil was involved, it turned out to be one of the largest spills in North Dakota history — an estimated 20,600 barrels over 7.3 acres (2.95 hectares) of land, or about the size of seven football fields.

The Health Department said the fact that the spill initially was believed to be small was one reason the agency didn't make a public announcement for 11 days — and only after The Associated Press asked about it. Some top state officials, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, have said they weren't even told about the pipeline break until this week.

Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Health Department, said that while companies must notify the state of any spills, the state doesn't have to release that information to the public. That's not unusual in major oil-producing states: Alaska and Oklahoma also do not require the government to publicly report spills. North Dakota is America's No. 2 oil producer.

But the public is often told about spills, particularly if oil gets into a waterway or otherwise threatens the environment.

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