Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota

Pipeline Already Under Big Sioux River

President Donald Trump has given the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline the green light to finish construction. Ninety percent of the pipeline is complete; the remaining construction involves tunneling under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River. The portion of the pipeline that is already finished includes 274 miles in South Dakota. The pipeline goes under several waterways including the Big Sioux River south of Sioux Falls.

According to the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration there are more than two million miles of pipeline already transporting different types of gas and oil throughout the country. Iowa and southern Minnesota are a maze of natural gas lines, while South Dakota looks bare compared to our neighbors.

At just under 1,200 miles long, the Dakota Access Pipeline will run from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois. It also crosses South Dakota and Iowa. The last remaining piece of the pipeline will run under the Oahe Reservoir 230 miles upriver from the dam just north of Pierre.

Putting a pipeline under a body of water is quite the process. The single most important piece of equipment is what is called a horizontal drilling rig like this one. First crews drill a small diameter pilot hole. Then they enlarge the pilot hole with a larger hydraulic drill. It uses special drill bits and high-pressure water jets to chew up the soil. The mud that’s created is pumped from the hole. It takes several passes back and forth to widen the hole Finally, the steel pipe is pulled through the tunnel. In the case of the Oahe Reservoir, plans call for the pipeline to be installed 95 to 115 feet below the water.

A Texas company called Pipeline Equities specializes in pipeline appraisals and pipeline removal all over the world. Founder David Howell has seen thousands of miles a pipeline after it has been in the ground, sometimes for decades. Howell has no stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline but he believes the process is sound.

“Nobody wants to dig a pipeline and bore under a lake and have a problem later and have to go un bore or go fix that, said Howell. “You just don’t want to do that, so you take every precaution necessary to make sure you don’t ever have to go back and do it again. You know it’s just common sense.”

The entire pipeline crosses dozens of major roads and waterways. In South Dakota it goes under Spring Creek near Herreid, Turtle creek west of Redfield, the James River north of Huron and under the Big Sioux, south of Sioux Falls. The Dakota Access Pipeline will be transporting 470,000 barrels of oil a day. That’s almost 20 million gallons of crude oil a day. So, just like they are currently doing at the north end of the Oahe reservoir, at the Big Sioux they used a horizontal drilling rig to tunnel under the water then back up to a few feet below the surface. A pumping station near Canton is the only sign of the pipeline near the Big Sioux. Energy Transfer Partners monitors the pressure in the pipeline to detect any leaks. A satellite uplink sends that information to the company headquarters in Texas. Harold Timmerman is Lincoln County’s Emergency Manager. I asked him what would happen if there were a leak.

“If they notice it from flying over it or they notice a drop in pressure in their lines they would isolate that area immediately by a series of valves they have in the line,” said Timmerman. “And they could go to that spot, dig up that leak and fix the pipe and take care of any contamination in the soil by bringing good soil back in.”

As the Emergency Manager, Timmerman says he’s comfortable with the precautions being taken.

“The incidents we have of pipelines leaking are pretty rare and there’s probably other ways to transport any kind of refined fuel or natural gas or propane or whatever. And we have road accidents and rail car incidents that happen. A pipeline may be the safest way to, even if there is a potential to possibly have a leak.”

There is no tax on the millions of gallons of crude oil transported through the pipeline. However, state and local governments and school districts will get money from property taxes. Energy Transfer Partners claims that will amount to more than 13 million dollars in South Dakota the first year of operation.

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