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Environment: Pipelines under scrutiny

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An oil pipeline in Alaska. Photo courtesy USGS.

Thirst for oil leads to inevitable disasters

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — With more than 2.6 million miles of pipeline criss-crossing the country, it seems almost inevitable that there will be breaks and spills. The only question is how serious the spill will be.

Right now, residents of Mayflower, Ark, will probably tell you that last year’s passage of the Pipeline Safety Act didn’t prevent their town from becoming the latest ground zero in a seemingly never-ending series of oil spill disasters.

The Pipeline Safety Act doubled the maximum civil penalties for pipeline safety violations from $100,000 to $200,000 and authorized an increase for the federal pipeline inspector workforce.

But none of that will help the people of Mayflower, where Exxon’s ruptured Pegasus pipeline spilled up 400,000 gallons of tar-sands crude oil. This latest pipeline spill was preceded by another two days earlier, when a train carrying Canadian tar-sands crude spilled 15,000 gallons in Minnesota.

Just last week Exxon was hit with a $1.7 million fine from a 2011 pipeline spill that dumped 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. Federal investigators concluded that Exxon was unprepared for seasonal flooding risks along the path of the Silvertip Pipeline, and that company’s employees were not ready to take effective action to respond to a spill.

Here’s what the U.S. Department of Transportation’s pipeline division had to say about Exxon’s river-fouling Silvertip accident:

“As a result of its accident investigation, PHMSA is alleging that ExxonMobil failed to properly address known seasonal flooding risks to the safety of its pipeline system, including excessive river scour and erosion, and to implement measures that would have mitigated a spill into a waterway.  In addition, the agency’s Notice of Probable Violation alleges that ExxonMobil failed to establish written procedures for its staff to take prompt and effective action to protect the Silvertip pipeline from floods and other natural disasters, and to minimize the volume of oil released from any section along the pipeline’s system, similar to what occurred in the Yellowstone River.”

Given the circumstances, it’s probably not surprising that environmentalists are currently focusing their efforts on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“These oil pipelines inevitably spill again and again, fouling our rivers, neighborhoods and wildlife habitat,” said Jerry Karnas, field director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Building even more pipelines like Keystone XL across the heart of the American Midwest is only courting more trouble and more terrible spills.”

The 1,700-mile pipeline would pass through rivers, streams and habitat for more than 20 endangered species, including the whooping crane and pallid sturgeon.

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