Public faults Marathon's communication during March leak

Jim Semerad listening to Pat Hedstrup talk about the smell over Fryburg in consequence of the leaked ethyl mercaptan. Photo by Josiah C. Cuellar // The Dickinson Press

BELFIELD, N.D. — Neighbors came together Wednesday, Nov. 20, to attend a town hall held by Marathon Petroleum to discuss last March's ethyl mercaptan leak, which spread as far east as Dickinson.

Ethyl mercaptan is a highly flammable chemical added to propane and natural gas to give it its recognizable smell.

The incident in question occurred at the Fryburg Rail Terminal on March 31, beginning around 1:30 a.m. when a faulty gasket on a pressure storage vessel began to leak and emit mercaptan into a secondary containment vault. According to Marathon Petroleum’s Darren Snow, the regional manager of the area, the problem was directly attributed to a lack of engineering on the part of M Chemical Co. coupled with a failure of oversight by Marathon Petroleum.

The initial leak wasn't initially discovered until a routine check of the facility. According to Michael Blanco, the emergency response manager on site, the first call didn't arrive until 20 minutes after the leak was discovered. Blanco initiated the emergency procedures and protocol to clean the leak and found that the sealing gasket had continued to deteriorate to a point where the leakage was increasing in volume rapidly. By the following morning, residents began to notice a foul odor in the air. The lack of communication prompted concern.

Ron Day, the public and government affairs manager with Marathon, detailed the post-spill procedures.


According to Day, a third-party toxicology consultant company was brought in to test the toxicity levels both on and off site. Marathon denies that any toxic levels were ever recorded off site by the third-party consultant agency.

Following the presentation, the public was allowed to ask questions of a panel of Marathon Petroleum employees, state and local government officials. The most pressing questions centered on health concerns and future protocols on communication.

Answering the volley of questions were Day and Snow, as well as Jim Semerad, Rheanna Kautzman and Bill Suess of North Dakota’s Environmental Quality Department.

Pat Hedstrup, a small rancher from Fryburg, faulted the company's communication with the public.

“What you have to keep in mind is that people didn't know of the leak and they thought it was a gas level issue," Hedstrup said. "We are taught from a very early age that when you smell mercaptan, you are in great danger. People were worried and your response time to notify the public was way too slow.”

Marathon Petroleum representatives agreed, but contended that the issue of communication in rural areas was difficult.

“That is your self-defense from catastrophic events; I totally agree,” Snow said. “One of the things we have to keep in mind is even if we told you it was us, you can't trust that because it's a hard thing with mercaptan to definitively say it's just us.”

During the leak, the Billings County Sheriff’s Office updated the public via social media, which failed to reach many in the community. Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel issued the order to use reverse-911 to notify the county as concerns rose about the lingering odor.


Marathon Petroleum offered to develop a notification listing for emergency incidents. Additionally, Marathon has pledged to invest in a mobile command center trailer for post-incident control. The trailer should be ready by the end of their first quarter, with complete weather and chemical detection software installed.

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