The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Crude Example

A Local Near-Miss Demonstrates the Potential Hazards of Oil Pipelines 

On March 18, an oil pipeline located about twenty miles away from my house developed a leak in the Oak Glen Nature Preserve.  The initial estimate was that about 10,000 gallons of crude were released into a marsh area, adjacent stream, and pond.  Thankfully, the spill was contained from the Great Miami River, located just five hundred feet away.  The leak was revised a week later to 17,000 gallons spilled.  Authorities said the pipeline had developed a five-inch crack but were still unsure exactly why.

The pipeline was laid in the 1950s, decade before Oak Glen was designated as a protected wildlife area.  It is owned by Sunoco Logistics and operated by Mid-Valley Pipeline Company.  In total, the pipeline stretches over 1,100 mils from Texas to Michigan.  This is the third time in the last decade that oil has leaked in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area from the pipe and the fortieth incident since 2006 for the pipeline as a whole.  The owners and operators have been fined multiple times for infractions and failure to take corrective actions.

Workers attempt to clean up oil spilled
into a pond from a pipeline running
through the Oak Glen Nature Preserve
near Cincinnati, OH

Nearby residents reported smelling a fuel-like odor for several days but none of them contacted authorities.   Ron Worsley, who owns a farm near the nature preserve, was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch as generally unworried about the leak or its odor.  “When I am around the stuff, I am less sensitive to it,” Worsley said. “I wouldn’t want to be swimming in it, but these things happen.

Initial reporting tended to downplay the incident, noting the local water supply and air quality remained safe.  The impact on local wildlife was also minimized, with the Wall Street Journal reporting, “Aside from one dead crawfish, [authorities] said no wildlife appeared to have been impacted.”

A week later the story was revised.  According to the Washington Times, “About sixty salamanders, frogs and crayfish have been collected” for cleaning, according to Hamilton County Parks officials.  In addition, “So far, twenty-eight small animals have been found dead in the preserve or died soon after being taken in.”

The area has proven tricky and expensive to clean up for a relatively small, contained spill.  The Cincinnati Enquirer explained how work crews will need to “build a road” to get heavy machinery into the spill area.  Crews must vacuum up the oil and dig up contaminated soil.  A pond near the spill site required oil sheen removed from its surface.  “The pond's shoreline is also showing staining akin to a ‘bathtub ring’ formed as a result of the oil's presence. Authorities will use thermal heat to remove the ring. The process could cause some smoke in the area.”

Alan Sanders is a chief strategist for the conservation group Earth Alert.  He lives in the nearby community of Loveland.  In an Enquirer op-ed piece, he notes, “The spill could hardly have come at a worse time for supporters of the proposed Keystone Pipeline.  That pipeline would cross the Ogallala aquifer, one of the world’s most important aquifers.”

The proponents of that pipeline may call this essay a crude attempt to conflate an accident on an old pipeline with a new state-of-the-art one.  Yet Keystone, if built, will also begin to age from the day it is put into operation.  Moreover, there are many lucky factors that made this spill far smaller and less dangerous than future possible Keystone spills.

First, the cold weather Cincinnati was experiencing at the time kept many small animals in hibernation and minimized larger game passing through the area.  The ground was also partially hard and frozen, thus able to absorb less oil.

Second, the Cincinnati pipeline ranges from eight to twenty-two inches in diameter along its run.  The Keystone pipeline is generally a uniform thirty-six inches throughout its proposed run.

Third, the oil that leaked was Texas sweet crude, noted for low sulfur content and lack of other impurities.  Keystone will carry crude from the Alberta tar sand fields.  This is often called “unconventional crude.”  Its natural state is thick, sludgy bismuth that requires mixture with other hydrocarbons to allow it to flow.  It requires multiple per-treatments before it can undergo traditional refining.  According to a July 2010 article in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, tar sand crude contains, “Heavy metals such as vanadium, nickel, lead, cobalt, mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, selenium, copper, manganese, iron and zinc are naturally present in oil sands and may be concentrated by the extraction process.”

Almost exactly one year ago, a major leak occurred in Exxon-Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline near the town of Mayflower, Arkansas.  At the time, the Washington Post published an editorial that rings sensible and true, both then and now.  “The country should [not] simply accept such events as inevitable . . . One reason to allow extraction and transportation of fossil fuel on American soil is that, if the U.S. government doesn’t, high demand means all of that will happen elsewhere, often in places that care much less about the environment.  For that logic to work, U.S. standards must be high.”

My example of pipeline dangers may indeed be crude but one of the definitions of “crude” is “unprepared.”  The incident near my hometown fortunately had a relatively happy ending.  Rather than using that as comforting reassurance, we would do well to consider it a harbinger for the potential calamities of future incidents.

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