MANDAREE, N.D. - About 1 million gallons of saltwater spilled into a North Dakota bay, causing some environmental damage but sparing a nearby lake that provides drinking water for an American Indian reservation, company and tribe officials said Wednesday.
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall told The Associated Press that an underground pipeline near Mandaree leaked about 24,000 barrels of brine into Bear Den Bay, a tributary to Lake Sakakawea. That Missouri River reservoir provides water to communities on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes in the heart of North Dakota's booming oil patch.
Saltwater is an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling that can be 20 times saltier than ocean water. At least some damage to trees, bushes and grass was reported, but the extent wasn't immediately clear.
Miranda Jones, vice president of environmental safety and regulatory at Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Services Inc., whose subsidiary Aero Pipeline LLC owns the pipeline, said the leak likely started over the weekend but wasn't discovered until Tuesday. The pipeline is not equipped with a system that sends an alert when there's a leak, she said.
"This is something that no company wants on their record, and we are working diligently to clean it up," Jones said.
Tribal leaders switched to an alternative source of water Wednesday but were again tapping Lake Sakakawea after concluding the contamination was limited to the bay, Hall said.
An investigator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency arrived Wednesday at the site.
Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Health Department, said damage from the toxic spill could be seen Wednesday.
"We've got dead trees, dead grasses, dead bushes, dying bushes," Roberts said.
Karolin Rockvoy, a McKenzine County Emergency manager, said the spill appeared to have gone undetected for some time.
"Looking at vegetation, it didn't happen yesterday," she said. "I can guarantee you that."
The number of saltwater spills in North Dakota has grown with the state's soaring oil production.
North Dakota produced 25.5 million barrels of brine in 2012, the latest figures available. A barrel is 42 gallons. There were 141 pipeline leaks reported in North Dakota in 2012, 99 of which spilled about 8,000 barrels of the saltwater. About 6,150 barrels of the spilled saltwater was recovered, state regulators said.
In 2006, a broken oil pipeline belched more than a million gallons of saltwater into a northwestern North Dakota creek, aquifer and pond. The cleanup efforts are ongoing at that site, which has been called the worst environmental disaster in state history.
The ruptured pipeline allowed saltwater to spew unnoticed for weeks into a tributary of the Yellowstone River near Alexander and caused a massive die-off of fish, turtles and plants.
That spill came during the infancy of North Dakota's oil boom. Now, a network of saltwater pipelines extends to hundreds of disposal wells in western North Dakota, where the brine is pumped underground for permanent storage.
Proposed legislation to mandate flow meters and cutoff switches on such lines was overwhelmingly rejected last year in the Legislature.