Pipe Dream$: How Much is Your Life Worth? Part I

Ending Oil Is Not A Pipe Dream

It’s relatively safe to say that almost everyone reading this has someone younger than them that they don’t want to see die from thirst. Most reasonable people would say that water is more important than a job. It’s pretty easy to rationalize that if one trades a job for water, then their job will only last long enough for them to die of thirst.So it seems counter-intuitive that any individual would accept a pipeline going through any water supply. It may create jobs, but with that promise is a gamble on the local water supply. A simple search for “Pipeline Accidents” yields lists with hundreds of entries.

I’d like to talk about some of the major accidents that have occurred recently. If at any point you’re overwhelmed, please read the second installment of this article. There are ways to create positive change in the world even as an individual citizen. But first, please make the effort to become fully informed. This article will detail five major pipeline accidents beginning with the notorious BP Gulf Coast spill in 2010, and ending with Alabama’s pipeline rupture that recently occurred in September of 2016.

Figure 1: Map of oil spills 2010-2015


Crude Oil – Composed mainly of pentanes and heavier hydrocarbons. Crude oil is a liquid that flows easily without stimulation (in contrast to bitumen).
Benzene – Benzene is used to thin the crude oil for improved flow, but it is an extremely hazardous chemical linked to leukemia and anemia.
Bitumen – Also known as “Fresh tar sands” is a dirt-like substance composed of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, sand and clay. The mixture can clump and clog pipelines. In order to keep it thin, benzene (or liquid constituents of natural gas) is used to break up the clogs. This allows for the oil to travel through pipelines more efficiently. However, when a pipeline bursts into a river bed, the dirt-like oil will blend in with the river’s natural dirt bottom, the oily sheen will rise to the surface, and the liquid constituents will vaporize into the air. Each one of these three oil products within the pipelines are hazardous to live organisms.
Figure 2: Tar Sands are thick oil deposits that must be solvated in liquid constituents of natural gas.

An oil worker holds raw oilsands near Fort McMurray, Alta., on July 9, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh


The BP Oil Spill in the Gulf Of Mexico May 2010:

BP’s official response to the oil spill includes a brief summary of the reason it occurred. The website states

The fire burned for 36 hours before the rig sank, and hydrocarbons leaked into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was closed and sealed. The accident involved a well integrity failure, followed by a loss of hydrostatic control of the well. This was followed by a failure to control the flow from the well with the blowout preventer (BOP) equipment, which allowed the release and subsequent ignition of hydrocarbons. Ultimately, the BOP emergency functions failed to seal the well after the initial explosions.

The rest of the article explains BP’s deep regret for loss of human life, and compensation for the accident. BP’s article offered up information that they will compensate the accident, but it does not mention that they were compelled under federal law to do so. The scientific assessment of the environmental effects is ongoing, with no clear end in sight. The current liability case for as much as $13 billion is ongoing. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier found that BP acted with “gross negligence and willful misconduct.” BP’s senior vice president Geoff Morrell does not acknowledge the environmental impact that the spill continues to have.

Bob Marshall, an environmental writer for The Lens and longtime outdoorsman gave an interview with NPR about how the BP spill has affected the environment of the Gulf. He explained that “The oil coated the roots of those mangrove trees and then they died, and without the mangroves to hold the islands together, within three years most of those islands were gone.” When noting a dead dolphin in the water he mentioned “I’ve never seen a single dead dolphin out here. Now I’m seeing two.”

In the same NPR article Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Gulf Restoration Network was interviewed. “Dolphin deaths continue, oil is still on the bottom of the ocean, tar balls keep coming up,” she says. “And nobody really is able to say what we may find in five years, 10 years. It’s really distressing to me.” Sarthou says there’s a distinct possibility that the spill will be a problem for generations to come.

“It’s not publicly seen but it is out there. It’s in the marine environment, and so whether we see it or not the potential impacts of its presence may plague us for decades.”

The spill was a disaster for the environment and economy in the Gulf Coast. Tourists are not interested in a beach covered in oil. The jobs that were brought to that area were far surpassed by the jobs that were surely lost in the economic downturn after the spill.

Kalamazoo River Oil Spill July 2010:


A timeline report of the Kalamazoo River oil spill can be found here.

Enbridge Energy’s 30-inch steel pipeline that runs 286-miles sustained a 6-foot rupture that leaked approximately 843,000 gallons of crude oil into the Talmadge Creek before the leak was stopped. The Talmadge Creek feeds into the Kalamazoo River. A state of emergency was called, and residents evacuated from the site due to high levels of Benzene. In 2012 the river was reopened to the public, with a reported 90% of waste cleaned up. Enbridge Energy states that the wildlife and vegetation is almost back to normal, however an article by EcoWatch questions that narrative. I highly suggest reading the entire article, but I will paste a large amount of the important information below. And for added convenience and your skimming pleasure, I’ll bold the parts to which you should pay special attention.

Fresh tar sands crude looks more like dirt than conventional crude—it’s far too thick to travel through a pipeline. To get this crumbly mess to flow, producers thin it out with the liquid constituents of natural gas. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as it’s called in the tar sands industry, is approximately three parts tar sands crude, one part natural gas liquids.

When dilbit gushed into Talmadge Creek in 2010, the mixture broke apart. The volatile natural gas liquids vaporized and wafted into the surrounding neighborhoods. The airborne chemicals were so difficult to find and eliminate that Enbridge decided it would be better to simply buy some of the homes that were evacuated, preventing the residents from ever returning.

The tar sands oil, which stayed in the water, presented an even bigger chemistry problem. Most forms of oil, including conventional crude, are less dense than water. That’s why oil makes such pretty colors when dropped into a rain puddle—it floats and plays tricks with the sunlight. Traditional oil spill cleanup technology relies heavily on this density relationship. Skimmers and vacuums remove it from the surface. Floating booms prevent surface-level oil from moving into environmentally sensitive areas. Tar sands crude behaves differently.” Put simply, the spilled dilbit traveled in every direction—into the air, with the current, to the bottom of the river—at the same time.

A half-decade later, some of the oil still remains. Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.

Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. Some local residents accuse the company of overstating its progress. “In the process of beautifying everything and giving money to everybody and making everybody feel good about it, they’re not really telling people about the dangers still there in that water,” says Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne of Michigan’s Potawatomi tribe.”

The operators for the pipeline noticed the pressure change in their telemetry, and tried to fix it by pushing more oil through – thus exacerbating the spill. This foolhardy attempt to regain pressure occurred for 17 hours. If while working at a gas station, an alarm went off that notified pressure loss in the gasoline pumps, how long would it take for the attendant to shut down the pump for an expert to inspect? If I may be allowed some conjecture – I’d dare to say that an employee that notices a problem that they cannot fix themselves would call their superiors. I don’t believe that this issue came solely from having inadequately trained maintenance employees. Their superiors didn’t put forth the effort to train them adequately, and my guess is that the superiors are also inadequate.

Keystone Pipeline Spills April 2016:

TransCanada reported 187 gallons of crude oil spilled to the federal government. The pipeline was shut down, and TransCanada issued a statement saying “no significant impact to the environment has been observed.” However, the estimate is now nearly at 17,000  gallons have been spilled onto South Dakota soil. After being commissioned in 2010, TransCanada reportedly recorded 35 leaks in its first year alone, including a spill of 21,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota. After seven years of active protests against continuing the Keystone XL, the president finally ruled against the pipeline’s continuation. However, TransCanada is not giving up on the pipeline. They claim that Obama’s decision was arbitrary and unjustified. Therefore they are now suing Obama’s administration for $15 billion under The American Free Trade Agreement.


Shell Gulf Coast Oil Spill May 2016:

The Shell facility in the Gulf Coast is equipped with high-tech telemetry to indicate pressure and flow metering, but the leak was discovered by accident. A helicopter pilot noticed the tell-tale sheen near Shell’s well. By the time that it was “contained” roughly 88,200 gallons were spilled.

Sue Sturgis writes“How long would this leak have continued, if not for the sheer luck of having a vigilant pilot happening by?”


Multiple leaks in Alabama Pipeline Sep 2016, :

The most recent leak occurred September 2016 in Shelby, Alabama. A reported 336,000 gallons of oil were spilled, and have been mostly been recovered at two of the three mining retention ponds. Benzene, an environmental hazard that was discussed in the Kalamazoo spill has prohibited the crew from immediate action. Colonial Pipeline said it had no indication of a leak prior to the inspector’s report, either from pressure readings in the pipeline or from routine aerial inspections it performs on the line.

Between 2010 and 2015 Colonial has gone from reporting an average of one Alabama incident per year over the last six years to at least five in the first nine months of 2016. Nationwide, the company filed 125 incident reports with PHMSA between April 23, 2010 and May 4, 2016, PHMSA records show.

The EPA gave a statement about the pipeline laid by Colonial read:

The government maintained that pipeline corrosion, mechanical damage, and operator error in seven recent spills resulted in the release of approximately 1.45 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products into the environment, including numerous rivers, streams, and wetlands.


Figure 3: Map of pipelines within the United States.


Our government is continuing to approve drilling permits and pipeline projects, but the spill response plans are inadequate at best. It’s overwhelming to know that pipelines are destroying ecosystems, and that they’re being laid by huge companies that are largely negligent. What is a citizen to do?

Please continue onto Part II for information on how the individual citizen can make a difference, because let’s face it – Washington isn’t on our side in this fight.

The Nation’s infrastructure doesn’t need to be based on a commodity that is inherently spreading death. Allow yourself to hope for a future with a living earth – a place where your family doesn’t have to trade jobs or anything else for water.

Figure 4:  Pipelines continue to be approved without adequate spill response procedures.



Kate Minola is a biophile, interested in medicine, human rights, animal rights, and ecology. She graduated with a Batchelor’s Degree in Chemistry, concentration in Organic Chemistry. In her spare time Kate enjoys homeless outreach, and animal rescue. Most importantly, she has a voracious appetite for sensibly warm socks. 


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