Industrial Commission Works on Pipeline Regulations, Fines

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BISMARCK (KFYR-TV) We've been reporting on pipeline leaks and spills on a regular basis for the past several months and the state's oil and gas regulator says more needs to be done to prevent them.

With several high profile leaks from small pipelines, the focus is now on gathering lines. Two years ago, lawmakers passed a bill that required companies to report the location and construction of the lines, but the director for the Department of Mineral Resources says more should be done.

A senate bill would require companies to apply for a permit from the industrial commission, and also require flow meters and automatic shut off valves.

"This bill takes the next step, which is to begin looking at how they are designed and actually intervening in the monitoring process of those pipelines," said Lynn Helms, director for the Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms says the bill does need some work, and if permits were required for each line his office would need additional staff.

Earlier this month, a pipeline leaked nearly 3 million gallons of brine near the Blacktail Creek, north of Williston, and last week a crude oil pipeline in Montana spilled into the Yellowstone River, prompting the city of Glendive to turn off its water system for several days.

The industrial commission has been criticized for reducing penalties against some companies violating regulations in the oil fields.

Helms says the public doesn't get to see the whole picture. He says an initial proposed fine is generally an over estimate, and can be four to five times greater than what the actual fine is, based on the severity and the length of a violation.

And companies then typically pay a settlement with a probationary penalty.

"They agree to cut a check for that amount, unappealable, if a repeat violation occurs during if a repeat violation occurs during that 1- to 5-year time period," Helms said. "It's like probation and it really changes behavior and quite often the public only sees the proposed fine and then the cash that's paid at the time of settlements."

Helms says looking back on 5 years of data, no companies have had a repeat violation.