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Meeting in the middle . . . This horizontal directional drilling rig
already in place along U.S. Highway 52 at the west side
of the Lakeshore crossing north of Kenmare has been
joined by a second drilling rig across the lake to the east.
Work on the mile-long segment of pipeline under the
Upper Des Lacs Lake will be ongoing for several weeks.
By Caroline Downs
Drilling operations continue for the Tioga Lateral Pipeline Project along U.S. Highway 52 at Lakeshore crossing where Alliance Pipeline has been dealing with surface releases, or frac-outs, on the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge.
According to Alliance’s Senior Communications Advisor Rob Gray, as of last week, eight surface releases have occurred as a result of drilling mud following the path of least resistance through fractures in the subsurface at 110 feet below ground during the horizontal directional drilling process. Six of the releases were seen along the north side of the highway as it crosses the lake, and two releases occurred upland on the lake’s east side.
“It is not possible to completely eliminate the potential for a release,” he said. “Ideally, drilling mud flows through the drilled hole back to the entry and exit points, where it can then be re-used.”
The amount of material, which is considered a non-toxic substance made primarily of bentonite or clay, released has varied in volume.
Following the first round of five frac-outs, a second drill rig was put into operation on the east side of the lake, across from the first rig already in place on the lake’s west side. “This allows drilling to proceed from two sides to an intercept point along the drill path,” Gray said. “Doing so reduces the time required to complete the drill and the probability of additional releases by providing an alternate, lower pressure flow path for the drilling mud coming from the west rig.”
He said the strategy proved successful, with drilling mud being pumped from the west rig now flowing through the east hole and surfacing in the east drilling mud containment pit.
The second drilling rig is one tactic Alliance is using to reduce the chance of additional releases. “In addition, our contractor regularly inspects the surface along the drill path and monitors drilling operations to check for indications of a surface release,” said Gray. “[Also], the contractor periodically withdraws the drill bit to reduce pressures within the drill hole.”
Gray said contractors anticipate drilling for another two to three weeks. Completing a pilot hole, eight inches in diameter, is the first step.
“Then the hole is reamed to a larger diameter, approximately 24 inches,” Gray explained. “Following this, the pipe that has been welded and pretested will be pulled back into the hole from the east side to the west, approximately one mile in length.”
The first releases were noticed January 6th and reported to Des Lacs NWR refuge manager Chad Zorn, who has continued to monitor the situation with representatives from Alliance. “[Lostwood Complex project manager] Dave Gillund and I feel Alliance Pipeline is working well with us and communicating with us,” said Zorn. “They call this their worst-case scenario when they’re boring, but they have not balked at any of our requests.”
Gray noted that containment structures, such as silt fence, straw bales and/or straw waffles, have been placed along the release sites. “When a release is detected, our drilling contractor temporarily suspends drilling operations, installs containment structures at the release site and begins clean-up,” he said. “The clean-up equipment and materials are available on-site to respond immediately.”
Drilling mud still in liquid form is removed by a vac-truck, while frozen mud on the ice is removed by a track-hoe using an extended arm and bucket attachment. Hand tools have been used to remove frozen mud in areas where the ice is thick enough to support the operations. “With containment deployed and clean-up underway, drilling activities are allowed to resume,” said Gray.
Lake will be checked
for underwater releases
Zorn noted that Alliance has been following the contingency plan they presented to refuge officials earlier. “We have required they develop a detailed clean-up plan for now and later in the spring,” he said. “We’re also waiting for a detailed statement about what happened, overall.”
Refuge staff sent a sample of the drilling mud collected from one of the frac-out sites to the USFWS Ecological Services office in Bismarck for independent testing. “They’ll check for toxic materials,” said Zorn. “Alliance has been very cooperative about that, and they will pay for the testing.”
Right now, Zorn questions the possibility of releases taking place in the lake itself. “If we’re having these happen along the road ditch, we’re concerned it could be happening under water,” he said.
Gray said there has been no indication of a direct release in the lake. “However, Alliance is working with staff from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the ND Department of Health on a protocol for testing beneath the ice for drilling mud,” he said. “Essentially, holes will be drilled in the ice at various points on the lake, through which bottom conditions will be observed using an underwater camera and probe.”
He added that a meter will also record suspended solids in the water columns below those holes in the ice.
Zorn likes that idea, especially because water samples from the Upper Des Lacs Lake were collected last summer during work done by representatives from North Dakota State University and the NDDOT. “We can compare those to the samples taken now,” he said. “Then we’ll see if there’s been any change.”
No new worries
at this point
Zorn and other local USFWS officials have inspected the release sites along U.S. 52, and visited the area with USFWS personnel from the Mountain-Prairie Region office in Denver.
Alliance has also notified all required agencies about the situation at the state and federal levels. “This includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Response Center, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, North Dakota Department of Transportation, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services and North Dakota Department of Health,” Gray said.
“There are no other new worries or concerns at this point,” Zorn said. “Now, we need to get it cleaned up and move forward. I commend the company for stepping up and doing the best they can with a bad situation.”
Gray acknowledged the surface releases look bad, but he reiterated the drilling mud used in the procedure is a non-hazardous mixture of clay and water. “We apologize for the mess,” he said, “along with any inconvenience caused by clean-up efforts.”
He continued, “The horizontal directional drilling of the pipe is still a better option than digging a pipeline trench through the area. Given the geology of the area, it just wasn’t possible to avoid these releases. But, Alliance will ensure that all the mud is cleaned up.”
Gray again encouraged area residents or landowners with concerns about the surface release situation to contact Alliance through their land agent or by calling the toll-free project number at 1-855-667-9558.