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Spring Spill Raises Concern About ND Rail Terminal's Future

State regulators say 16% of oil produced in North Dakota in October was shipped out by rail. (Roy Luck/Flickr)
State regulators say 16% of oil produced in North Dakota in October was shipped out by rail. (Roy Luck/Flickr)
December 19, 2019

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Even minor changes to oil movement by rail are under scrutiny in North Dakota because of its potential public safety hazard.

This week, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held a public hearing on a proposed change from diesel to crude oil storage and reimplementation of a flare at the Fryburg Rail Terminal in western North Dakota.

The permit application from Tesoro -- now owned by Marathon Petroleum -- was a reminder of a chemical spill at the terminal last spring.

A holding tank released hundreds of gallons of ethyl mercaptan, which has a strong odor and is added to propane to detect gas leaks. It could be smelled 30 miles away in Dickinson.

Linda Weiss, a Dakota Resource Council member who lives near the terminal, says it was a wake-up call.

"We learned things and they learned things," she states. "For one thing, they weren't as prepared as they should have been and the community wasn't notified in a timely manner and there was some panic among people, especially those closer to the site."

Weiss says DEQ was helpful answering the community's questions prior to the public hearing this week.

Marathon Petroleum said at a November town hall in Belfield that it would improve its warning system for spills, noting that communication is difficult in rural areas.

Public comment on the change at the Fryburg terminal runs through Monday.

Recent numbers from the North Dakota Pipeline Authority show about 16% of state oil was shipped out by rail in October. That month, a record 1.5 million barrels per day were produced.

Weiss says there should be more transparency in how oil companies approach public safety.

"You don't want anything awful to happen but you need to know what are we doing," she stresses. "Are we doing best practices and what can the community - what part can we play in helping that?"

The Fryburg terminal is located about 1.5 miles from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Weiss says residents in Billings County also are concerned about a proposed oil refinery near the park.

The North Dakota Supreme Court will decide the fate of key permits for that refinery next year.

Disclosure: Dakota Resource Council contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, Rural/Farming. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND