August 22, 2008

Lucky Breaks Eased Cleanup of Pipeline Spill

By Len Wells (618) 842-2159 or [email protected]

It's never good news when a high-pressure pipeline breaks - anywhere. However, when the 20-inch Marathon Oil Corp. crude oil line ruptured near Golden Gate, Ill., on Sunday, the conditions could not have been more favorable in avoiding an environmental disaster. Believe me, it could have been a whole lot worse.

The line ruptured north of the tiny Wayne County village, which has a population of just 100. (The town got its name from a somewhat greedy landowner who once built a gate across the railroad tracks and charged train conductors a fee to cross his property.)

The spill site is in the Elm River bottoms, which was flooded and under 5 feet of water for more than 50 days this year. Remarkably, it hadn't rained in over a week before the line broke. The spill site was pretty much bone dry.

The break happened a very short distance from where the Elm River flows into the Little Wabash, which is the municipal water source for several Wayne County communities. Had the line ruptured when the bottoms were flooded, it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for any oil company to halt the oil's migration into the local water supply.

Even though its size - 210,000 gallons - was rated "nationally significant" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, news of the spill didn't travel much beyond the Tri-State. The reason seems simple. The oil spill was contained within three acres of soybeans and timber land. The nearest farmhouse is a few miles to the northeast. There were no evacuations, no resulting explosion, and no one showed up with banners to protest the sometimes shaky environmental record of "Big Oil."

Emergency responders from Marathon seemed prepared for the spill. Maybe it was because they rehearsed an eerily similar scenario a little more than a year ago at a disaster management drill in Evansville.

In that drill, an emergency management team from Marathon and a number of state and federal environmental officials responded to mock disasters caused by a magnitude 7.7 earthquake along the New Madrid fault. In that drill, officials had to deal with a break along the 20-inch transmission line that runs from a Patoka, Ill., tank farm to Owensboro, Ky., and eventually to the company's refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky. Turns out that was the very same line that broke Sunday.

I wouldn't have even known about the spill if I hadn't received a call from a woman who had trouble cutting through the bottoms to go to morning church services in Mount Erie. "There's a bunch of oil field trucks lined up along the gravel road north of Golden Gate," she said. "And there's an airplane circling above. What's going on up there?"

Sure enough, I looked out my front door to the east and saw the plane circling, and I decided to investigate. The local police had heard about the spill but didn't seem too concerned. In fact, no one was even dispatched to check it out.

The first person I encountered near the scene was an old friend from Grayville who works for Marathon.

Of course, he wasn't authorized to talk to me about the situation, but he agreed to pass my name and phone number on to someone who could. Within a short time, an oil company official filled me in on what was happening, and to my surprise, remained accessible throughout the initial days of repairs and cleanup.

If there's another pipeline break in the near future, I doubt if will happen under such ideal conditions.

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