Environment: Feds face pipeline safety lawsuit

Workers try to contain an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline in the Yellowstone River in January, 2015.

Lacksadaiscal enforcement is a recipe for disaster

Staff Report

FRISCO — After a series of disastrous pipeline breaks, the National Wildlife Federation says it’s time to hold the federal government accountable for its failure to enforce basic requirements like regular inspections and update safety response plans for pipeline accidents.

This week, the nonprofit group said it will sue the  U.S Department of Transportation in an action that has nationwide implications, since nearly every pipeline that crosses a navigable water is operating illegally. In its formal notice of intent to sue, the National Wildlife Federation is asking the Department of Transportation to issue regulations for oil pipelines in water, and require every owner and operator of an oil pipeline in a navigable water to submit a safety response plan that needs to be approved.

“We hope today’s action will be a catalyst for long-overdue protections that benefit people, communities, and wildlife,” said Mike Shriberg, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “The federal government needs to enforce the law to prevent oil pipeline disasters from fouling our water and threatening our communities and iconic places.”

The notice of intent to sue is the first legal action in the effort to protect the Great Lakes from two pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The National Wildlife Federation has led the effort to highlight the risk posed by pipelines under the Great Lakes.

Underwater film footage shows pipelines with missing supports (indicating the presence of corrosion), and some sections of the suspended pipelines covered in large piles of unknown debris — a wake-up call illustrating the urgent threat such oil pipelines pose in waters across the country.

In fact, a January pipeline break that fouled the Yellowstone River in Montana was likely due to similar damage. Timely inspections by the government and proper maintenance by pipeline operators could have prevented the environmental disaster. In 2011, the Silvertip Pipeline, near Laurel, burst and spilled more than 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River.

The National Wildlife Federation is filing the intent to sue notice against the Department of Transportation for failing to meet its obligations under the Oil Pollution Act. Enacted in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, the act prohibits the transportation of oil through pipelines on land or in the water, unless oil pipeline owners or operators receive government approval that they have safety plans that are adequate to respond to a worst-case oil spill.

But the U.S. Department of Transportation has never established requirements for — and has never given approval of — spill response plans for pipelines that that travel in, on, or under rivers, lakes, and other inland navigable waters, allowing oil pipeline owners and operators to operate without approved safety plans.

The NWF outlined its concerns in a press release:

  • oil pipeline owners and operators are not required to prepare or submit for approval oil spill response plans for pipelines in, on, or under rivers, lakes, or other inland navigable waters;
  • even if an oil spill response plan is voluntarily prepared and submitted, the Department of Transportation has no regulations in effect for reviewing or approving the plan, and the owner or operator therefore has no obligation to comply with it; and,
  • oil pipeline owners and operators are allowed to transport oil without a plan or, if a voluntary plan exists, without following it.

“The law does not allow oil to flow through a pipeline running through an inland navigable waterway unless the U.S. Department of Transportation first approves an oil spill response plan. The Department of Transportation’s failure to even require such plans therefore is a huge oversight,” said Neil Kagan, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. “The U.S. Department of Transportation needs to act with urgency and purpose to provide the long-overdue protection of our country’s rivers and lakes mandated by the Oil Pollution Act.”

Between 1995 and 2014 there have been 10,844 pipeline incidents causing 371 fatalities and 1,395 injuries and more than $6.3 billion in property damage, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Accident statistics include pipelines transporting oil, gas, natural gas, liquid natural gas, and other hazardous materials. Just one company, Enbridge Energy, has been responsible for 1,100 pipeline spills between 1999 and 2013, according to the company’s own records.

Pipelines through waterways present their own set of challenges. Rivers especially have a penchant for scouring, which can uncover pipelines buried beneath the riverbed and expose them to forces that cause spills and leaks. Oil pipeline spills in waterways can be hard to clean up due to water currents, ice cover, and debris.

Oil spills are also devastating to fish and wildlife and their habitat. Oil can contaminate the food chain from top to bottom—harming and even killing organisms from algae and plankton to fish, birds, and reptiles. Oil contamination can also damage fish and wildlife habitat for decades following a spill.

The group also did its homework on national pipeline statistics, which show that there are at least 5,110 locations in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The pipeline safety administration has identified 20 accidents occurring at inland water crossings between 1991 and October 2012, not including the 2015 Yellowstone River spill.

Significant spills occurred in rivers and waters across the country, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, including:

  • California: Fresno County, California
  • Iowa: Big Sioux River and Missouri River
  • Kansas: Hafner Run Creek, Kansas
  • Kentucky: Kentucky River
  • Louisiana: Atchafalya River, Levee, and Red River
  • Montana: Yellowstone River
  • Nebraska: Missouri River
  • Oklahoma: Cotton Creek, Pawnee Creek and Pole Cat Creek
  • South Dakota: Big Sioux River
  • Texas: Red River and San Jacinto River

The NWF took square aim at Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. The company operates two pipelines at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron, known as the Straits of Mackinac—a location that University of Michigan scientists have called the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes due to the strong, unpredictable currents and potential for ice cover. Yet, Enbridge Energy:

  • did not obtain the Department of Transportation’s approval of an oil spill response plan for sections of the pipeline that run under the Straits of Mackinac, St. Clair River, and other inland navigable waters – which means that the Department has not determined that Enbridge has ensured the availability of resources necessary to respond to a worst-case spill; and,
  • transported oil through the sections of the Mackinac that run under the Straits of Mackinac, the St. Clair River, and other inland navigable waters without operating these sections in compliance with an approved oil spill response plan.

“The oil pipeline industry’s track record of spills, accidents, and disasters underscore the need for iron-clad protections,” said Shriberg. “The federal government needs to do its job and protect our communities, fish, and wildlife from the next oil spill disaster.”


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