Giant gasoline leak in South more proof of pipeline vulnerability


Transporting fossil fuels across North America has become the hot-button environmental issue of the 2010s, and understandably so. Big Oil’s technologies for sucking oil from locations that were once unreachable — like the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or the Canadian tar sands — may be environmentally flawed, but they still remain light years ahead of our mid-20th Century methods for shipping oil and natural gas. The threat of pipeline leaks like the incidents that have polluted streams and major rivers from Michigan to Montana has been a driving force in stopping one potentially disastrous pipeline project, the Keystone XL, and has now inspired coast-to-coast opposition to a second proposal, the Dakota Access pipeline.

Big Oil’s response? Basically, it’s been “choose your poison” because they insist that all of the oil they’re pulling from deep underground has to go somewhere. And statistically, they argue, pipelines are safer than oil trains, which have had an alarming tendency to derail and explode — sometimes with lethal consequences. That argument does give a pause to dedicated environmentalists; the truth is that oil transportation, in outdated tanker cars that should have been removed from service decades ago is indeed fundamentally flawed. But that doesn’t mean we should look the other way on pipelines. Over the past week, a massive pipeline spill in the Deep South served as a reminder of that:

A pipeline leak of at least 250,000 gallons of gasoline in a rural Alabama county is expected to affect fuel prices in the coming days across multiple southern states and the East Coast.

The leak already prompted two states of emergency Thursday stemming from fuel shortage concerns.

The oil leak was first discovered a week ago in rural Shelby County?—?just southeast of Birmingham, Alabama. It forced the pipeline company, Colonial Pipeline, to shut the line last Friday, hampering gasoline deliveries in various states including Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.

In response to expected gasoline shortages, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley andGeorgia Gov. Nathan Deal issued states of emergency, reported. As of Thursday evening, the leaking section of the pipeline remains unexcavated over safety concerns. Spills and gasoline leaks can contaminate soil, groundwater, surface water, and air. Gasoline fumes can also be toxic. Though the line has been shut off, gasoline still in the pipeline may be leaking.

The gasoline is being held in a mine water retention pond and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff at the site say residents are not in danger because the site is far from homes. The gasoline is also unlikely to breach the retention pond and enter nearby Cahaba River, Alabama’s longest free-flowing stream, the EPA told local media. The cause of the leak is unknown.

The people of Alabama seem to have dodged a bullet here. Although the size of the spill was particularly large, the primary location of the leak was far enough away from homes and the watershed to prevent serious environmental damage. It’s important to note that other major American rivers, like the Yellowstone and the Kalamazoo, were not as fortunate when pipelines ruptured near them. And people living with the Colonial Pipeline in their backyards may not be as lucky the next time.

The reality is that the company that operates the Colonial Pipeline has been fined tens of millions of dollars for violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws in the 1990s and the 2000s, And since those years, the agency that regulates pipelines in the United States — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Act — has been gutted by budget cuts, losing its ability to inspect risky pipelines such as the Colonial as often it should.

It’s all another reminder of why Big Oil’s promises ring so hollow. The safety track record for American pipelines has never been as good as the energy giants want the public to believe. And that’s why the pipeline-vs.-rail debate is dishonest and divisive. The safest way to handle oil and natural gas is to focus on renewable energy — and keep as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible.

Read more about this week’s Colonial Pipeline spill:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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