National Response Center – Down, But Not Out

We’ve been getting questions about the status of the National Response Center, mostly wondering if public safety is being impacted by the Federal government shutdown.  The major oil spill from a ruptured pipeline in North Dakota, discovered by a farmer on September 29 but not made widely public until October 8, is driving some of this concern.  

We contacted the NRC and  spoke to one of their operations officers, Andrew Kennedy, who was very helpful.  Here’s what we learned:

  1. The NRC is operational. 
  2. Some of the website functionality is down, including the “Online Reporting Tool” for reporting spills and other incidents, and the “Query Standard Reports” tool to search for, and download, recent (2013) reports.
  3. Polluters and concerned citizens can still report oil or hazmat spills, or suspected spills, via telephone (1-800-424-8802). These reports are being distributed as usual to local, state and Federal responders and others who are on the distribution list.
  4. Older reports from previous years can still be downloaded in bulk.

Andrew also explained the situation with the North Dakota pipeline spill:

  • The first report of this spill was filed with the NRC at 1:16 am on September 30, before the government shutdown took effect. It did not include any estimate of the spill size, so it didn’t attract much notice.  It does not appear in the SkyTruth Alerts system, possibly because it didn’t include enough specific location information for us to place it on the map; we won’t know for sure until we can see this report.
  • A second report was filed with NRC on October 8 to provide an update on the spill.  It included the 20,000-barrel spill estimate.  Our Alerts system wouldn’t have been able to access this report because the government shutdown was in effect.

Neither report is currently available for download from the NRC. You can submit a FOIA request to get them, or wait until our government sorts itself out and gets up and running again, and the NRC website’s full functionality is restored. 

Meanwhile, this incident raises fresh questions about industry’s ability to monitor pipeline integrity and quickly detect leaks and spills before they can become huge messes. I think this North Dakota farmer sums it up pretty well:

Jacob Wiedmer, who was helping Jensen harvest his wheat crop, likened the Sept. 29 discovery to the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show.

“It was just like Jed Clampett shooting at some food …” he said of the oil coming from the ground. “Except we weren’t hunting, we were harvesting.”