Is Moving Oil Becoming As Dangerous As Burning It?

This is part 1 in a short series we’ll be doing on the U.S. deteriorating oil/gas pipeline infrastructure

By Caroline Erickson

Part 1:  Yellowstone River Spill Reminder of Kalamazoo Enbridge Spill and Deteriorating National Pipeline Infrastructure

On the evening of Friday, July 1, 2011, 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Montana.

Exxon Mobil originally claimed that only 10 miles of the famed waterway would be polluted, but as high water conditions in the river have persisted, oil has spread further than 100 miles down stream into North Dakota. The 12-inch pipe buried only 5-8 feet under the river bed was not fully shut down until 56 minutes after the rupture occurred on Friday night. Dangerous oil fumes and inky crude oil have threatened wildlife and human communities along the river.

With extremely high water levels, riverside properties and wilderness have been coated in thick oil. Yellowstone River is known for its fantastic fishing and richness of fish species. Exxon Mobil has installed booms across the river and are using absorbent pads in limited areas along the shore to try and contain oil and prevent further dissipation.

“Riparian areas along the river are biological treasure troves,” Montana Governor Schweitzer told MSNBC. River shores are the health and wealth of the river. Oil is pooling in these areas, threatening microbes and insects that bring the river to life.

Exxon Mobil’s Silvertip pipeline is out of date, and whereas modern pipelines are buried more than 25 feet beneath bodies of water, Exxon’s pipeline was dangerously close to the riverbed and is suspected to have been damaged by flowing debris washed loose by the flood.

In May, this pipeline was temporarily closed after Laurel officials raised concerns about rising water levels in the Yellowstone River. After reviewing its own safety records, Exxon reopened the pipeline, ignoring the risk posed by a high spring waters.

Nationwide, pipeline’s like the one near Laurel run dangerously close to critical fresh waterways, threatening people and wildlife alike with the potential of a spill. As is evident by the pipeline’s extremely shallow buried depth, the infrastructure has become outdated. Pipelines are being used nowadays that do not meet new regulations about buried depth and other pipeline safety standards.

In July of 2010, a similarly outdated pipeline burst in the Kalamazoo River and more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled into the water and surrounding wetlands. The leak came from a 30-inch pipeline owned by Enbridge, Inc, built in 1969, which carried about 8 million gallons of heavy tar sands crude oil

daily from Griffith, Indiana, to Sarnia, Ontario. This pipe was more than 40 years old and  vulnerable to breakage.

The spill in the Kalamazoo River last year has raised questions about the age and infrastructure safety of pipeline networks nationwide. Much of the system that criss-crosses the country is built with protective coatings that deteriorate over time and have been in place for decades. Corrosion of these protective coatings have caused spills that have cost the U.S. $288 million in property damage from 1991 to 2010.

EPA Enbridge Oil Spill Quick Facts:
  • 766,288 gallons of oil recovered
  • 15.1 million gallons of oil/water collected and disposed
  • 111,971 cubic yards soil/debris disposed
  • 47 boom locations
  • 33,800 feet of boom deployed in the river
  • 26 monitoring locations
  • 454 personnel on site
  • $28.7 million EPA costs to date

41% of U.S. Oil piping was built in the 50s and 60s. Aging pipes mean deteriorating coatings and wear and tear on the metal. Piping is made from thin carbon steel which rusts quickly if unmaintained. Companies use a process called cathodic protection in efforts to deter rusting, sending a current through the metal of the pipe and wrapping the pipe in a protective coating.

Unfortunately, many of these coatings are outdated and made of asphalt or polyethylene plastic, both of which crack and corrode over time and could fail after 30-40 years, and it has become obvious that outdated pipeline infrastructure poses a serious threat to human and wildlife welfare.


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