This little-known pipeline could spell trouble for Dakota Access

By Mike Soraghan | 12/06/2023 06:56 AM EST

A federal safety order says neglect led to spills on the Mid-Valley pipeline, which shares an owner with the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.

Signs marking the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota.

Signs marking the Dakota Access pipeline are seen north of Cannonball, North Dakota, and the Standing Rock reservation in 2021. Matthew Brown/AP

The company behind the Dakota Access oil pipeline has neglected a different, older pipeline, federal safety regulators say, resulting in a cascade of troubling spills.

A recent proposed safety order for the Mid-Valley pipeline could complicate matters for Dakota Access, the hotly contested system that moves crude from North Dakota to Illinois. Federal officials are conducting an environmental review to determine whether Dakota Access can continue to operate under a federally controlled lake.

Both pipelines are owned by Energy Transfer, and the company’s spill record has been a key point of contention in the legal drama surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has long warned that a pipeline spill could foul its water supply, a prospect dismissed by the company.


Now, the tribe argues the Mid-Valley order — issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — shows safety and environmental problems are “pervasive” in the company. The order, issued in October, has not been previously reported.

“PHMSA’s Safety Order shows these issues are systemic to Energy Transfer,” Doug Crow Ghost, the tribe’s water resources director, said in a statement to E&E News. “This is a major reason why DAPL is unsafe and must be shut down.”

Mid-Valley, built in the 1950s, experienced three leaks within 10 days last summer, on top of two others earlier in the year. That prompted PHMSA to look into the pipeline’s record in the years since Energy Transfer bought it.

The inquiry found that the Mid-Valley system has had 34 spills or other mishaps since 2014 — some of which were repeats, occurring in the same places for the same reasons.

“Conditions exist on the Mid-Valley Pipeline that pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property, or the environment,” PHMSA wrote in the proposed order.

Dallas-based Energy Transfer did not respond to requests for comment. It can appeal the proposed order.

In an email to E&E News, PHMSA said Energy Transfer has so far not appealed but sought “informal consultation.”

Some of the tribe’s earliest objections to the Dakota Access pipeline were about whether regulators had properly assessed the risk of a spill on Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River about half a mile north of the tribe’s reservation in North Dakota. The lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is the tribe’s primary water supply.

The tribe says a pipeline spill in its water supply would be an existential threat. Energy Transfer has called chances of a catastrophic spill “infinitesimal.”

But when it comes to the company’s Mid-Valley pipeline, federal regulators say neglect has increased the risk of spills. Energy Transfer acquired the pipeline with its 2012 purchase of Sunoco Inc.

The Mid-Valley system runs a little more than 1,000 miles from East Texas through Kentucky and Ohio to a point in southern Michigan near Toledo, Ohio. It’s designed to deliver more than 10 million gallons of crude daily to refineries in the Upper Midwest.

The pipeline runs near or through several high population areas, according to the PHMSA order, as well as environmentally sensitive areas such as lakes, rivers and streams.

The 34 Mid-Valley failures were from various causes, including internal corrosion, pump failures, third-party damage, faulty equipment, exposed pipe, failed repairs and operator errors, according to the order.

In one case, a mower hit a section of pipe that had become exposed, resulting in a 200,000-gallon spill in Tennessee in 2022. The spill, in which the crude reached a creek, was reportedly the second-largest spill to occur in the state.

PHMSA said the company failed to fully investigate the cause of some of the spills, leaving open the possibility that similar problems might exist elsewhere on the Mid-Valley system.

“Numerous" spills were also detected by the public rather than control room operators, the order said, raising questions about Energy Transfer’s “inability to self-monitor and detect failures."

Controversial review

The Army Corps' environmental review of the Dakota Access pipeline, called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), was released in September. It discounts much of Energy Transfer’s spill record — including a large spill on Mid-Valley — as irrelevant.

Standing Rock and two other tribes have criticized the corps' use of Environmental Resources Management to conduct the review, noting the contractor's membership in the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that supports Dakota Access. The tribes accused the corps of producing "an advocacy document that appears to be prepared by the proponent for a single purpose: to justify issuance of a new easement."

The DEIS document notes that Sunoco has "one of the worst pipeline release records" and that one of its worst spills occurred on Mid-Valley in 2014.

But the review’s authors exclude the spill history of Sunoco, Mid-Valley and the company's 90,000 miles of natural gas lines.

They argue that Sunoco spills before 2017 should not be counted against Energy Transfer because the two companies remained separate until they were merged that year in a restructuring. Since then, the review says, Sunoco's performance has been improving.

In the last five years, Sunoco and Mid-Valley had the fourth- and fifth-worst spill records for barrels spilled per mile among companies with more than 1,000 miles of pipe, according to PHMSA data. Dakota Access ranked far better at 31.

Dakota Access has had 12 leaks and other issues that met PHMSA's reporting threshold. The company and the DEIS both emphasize that those problems took place at aboveground facilities and not on the underground mainline of the pipe.

PHMSA has taken three enforcement actions against Dakota Access, including a notice about problems with its operating procedures, which did not involve a fine, and a proposed $93,000 fine in 2021 for several safety violations. The 2021 case was settled for $20,000; some violations were dismissed. The DEIS stresses that none of the violations were applicable to the Lake Oahe crossing.

Energy Transfer’s spill record for liquid pipelines is better than the industry average, according to the DEIS. So the review’s authors used industry averages to analyze the likelihood of a spill, concluding that “the probability of a large release (over 1,000 bbls) from underneath Lake Oahe is remote."

The review notes that the Dakota Access pipeline is buried at least 95 feet below the lake, is built to higher-than-required standards and has the "best epoxy coating available" to prevent corrosion.

Army Corps officials have made no recommendation on whether the Biden administration should grant an easement for the 1.02-mile portion of the pipeline that runs under Lake Oahe. Possible actions outlined in the DEIS include allowing the pipeline to operate as is, shutting it down, adding features to protect groundwater and rerouting it.

The Army Corps is accepting comments on those possibilities and other aspects of the draft until Dec. 13. The next step will be for the agency to issue a final EIS that incorporates the comments. A decision could come at the same time.

Construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline inspired intense protests by thousands of people in 2016 and 2017. The bitter fight spurred a debate about tribal treaty rights and the costs of the United States' newfound abundance of oil.

In its waning days, the Obama administration declined to grant a final permit for the pipeline to cross under the lake. But former President Donald Trump rescued it with an executive order four days after his inauguration, to which Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren had contributed $250,000.

The pipeline began operations in 2017 and has remained online since then, despite legal challenges.

In 2020, Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Dakota Access pipeline should be closed and drained of oil because the Army Corps' environmental reviews had been inadequate, particularly in addressing the risks of spills and leaks.

An appeals court stepped in to prevent closure of the pipeline but agreed further review was needed under the National Environmental Policy Act. That led to the DEIS released in September.