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Pipeline Threat Covers Tri-State System Crisscrosses Region, Nation

August 22, 2008

By MARK WILSON Courier & Press staff writer 464-7417 or wilsonm@courierpress.com

If last weekend’s oil pipeline break had happened somewhere other than a remote farm field in Wayne County, Ill., it might well have been labeled an environmental catastrophe.

“If you are going to have a spill of that magnitude, it was the right place to have it,” said Sherman Greer, director of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Emergency Management Agency.

The 5,000-barrel spill from a 20-inch interstate transit line owned by Marathon Oil Co. nearly reached the volume of the BP crude oil spill on Alaska’s north slope region in 2006, in which about 6,357 barrels were reportedly lost.

Marathon’s spill, however, seemed to have a minimal effect on the environment, at least in the short term. An initial assessment came up with wildlife deaths of two ducks, five small fish and a snapping turtle, according to Maggie Carson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Unlike the Alaska spill, which came from a relatively small leak in an above-ground pipe, the Marathon Oil spill last weekend was an eruption from a pipeline buried 4 feet underground. The crude oil covered a three-acre area.

“It was more or less an explosion because it was under pressure, so it covered a large area. It went into farm fields and some areas where it was not immediately accessible,” Carson said. “Considering the geographic area covered, this appears fairly minimal, but the agencies involved will conduct a formal damage process.”

That assessment may well turn up additional damage, she said.

Although representatives from several state and federal agencies have responded to the incident, because the spill originated from an interstate transmission line, oversight for it falls with the U.S. Department of

Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Marathon has been cited for violations of pipeline safety or maintenance regulations just three times in the last five years, according to publicly available information on the agency’s Web site.

The company has paid a total of $27,500 in civil penalties.

However, in 2002 the company was issued a notice of violation for a 1,100-barrel spill from a pipeline near the Roxana, Ill., landfill near East St. Louis, Carson said.

Federal officials have issued 368 pipeline-related enforcement actions just in the last 18 months, said Patricia Klinger, PHMSA spokeswoman.

High odds of spill near populated area

While last weekend’s spill may have been in a remote location, the odds that a spill may happen in a more populated area are high.

A map of oil and natural gas transmission lines on the administration’s Web site reveals a dense network of pipelines crisscrossing the country but especially the central and eastern states.

And those are just the transmission lines. Another network of distribution lines carries gas, oil and other petroleum products to their destinations.

Living with the risk they pose is a symptom of our country’s dependence on such fossil fuels to meet the bulk of its energy needs, said John Blair, president of Evansville-based environmental group Valley Watch.

More than 97 percent of the nation’s transportation energy needs are met by petroleum products – of which 64 percent move through this vast pipeline network.

“It is the environmental cost of our habit. Sometimes you have problems,” Blair said.

Agency counts thousands of spills

Not counting the Wayne County spill, there have been 5,894 significant spills since 1988, according to federal records, resulting in more than $3.8 billion in property damage.

Nearly 3 million barrels of petroleum products have been released into the environment, less of than half of which was recovered.

Illinois has responded to 32 crude oil spills this year alone, Carson said, and has dealt with 1,436 such spills since 1990. However, most of those spills have been on much smaller scale.

In addition to these interstate transmission and distribution lines, many states also must keep an eye on the infrastructure of oil and gas wells within their own borders.

There are 37,500 unplugged oil and gas wells in Illinois, mostly in the southern part of the state, said Duane Pulliam, interim director of the state’s Division of Oil & Gas.

Likewise, of the more than 8,000 unplugged wells in Indiana, most are concentrated in the southwestern part of the state, said Herschel McDivitt, director of the Indiana Division of Oil & Gas.

Both states require the operators of those wells to keep them in leak-free condition and inspect them regularly. Six of Indiana’s nine inspectors are assigned to the southwestern part of the state.

While many of the nation’s pipelines were built in what were once rural areas, Klinger said, development has brought people closer to them.

“More and more, developers are moving right up to these pipelines,” she said.

The majority of spills come when these pipelines, – especially distribution lines, which sometimes can be nearly as large as transmission lines – are inadvertently damaged, Klinger said.

That’s when emergency responders such as state and local agencies come into play.

“We meet with the oil companies on an annual basis. Fire, police, emergency management, all get together with them to make sure we are all together on this,” Greer said. “Most (oil companies) already have cleanup crews on retainer to set up booms and get the right equipment out there. Our roles would be to protect the citizens of our counties and cities.”

One of the biggest concerns for emergency responders, Greer said, is to make sure that what is spilled does not pose the threat of fire or explosion and to evacuate nearby people if it does.

In June 2007, Marathon Oil participated with the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local agencies in a “Spill of National Significance” exercise to practice responding to a major spill, Greer said.

Map – LARRY FINK

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