Gas Pipeline Rupture Forces Alabama and Georgia States of Emergency

*The following is an opinion column by R Muse*

Just when Native Americans are protesting an oil pipeline due to environmental fears it will rupture and despoil the Missouri River’s water supply, and the pipeline’s owner is touting the safety record of conveying petroleum through a pipeline, the Native Americans’ fears were proven to be warranted. Although not in the Midwest and nowhere near the Missouri River, a gasoline pipeline ruptured earlier this week and prompted governors in Alabama and Georgia to declare a state of emergency in their respective states.

Now, no American should delude themselves into thinking the states of emergency are over environmental or health concerns because that would mean there was a conscientious regard for the health and safety of Alabama and Georgia residents. The reason the governors, Nathan Deal of Georgia and Robert Bentley of Alabama each issued executive orders declaring a state of emergency is because the oil industry is concerned they cannot sell gasoline in the areas the pipeline serves. In fact, each executive order suspends restrictions on the maximum number of hours fuel delivery truck drivers can stay behind the wheel.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) sets the maximum number of “behind the wheel” time out of high regard for public safety. Apparently, to allay fears that all big-rig drivers can exceed the U.S. DOT limits and endanger other motorists, the orders only apply to big-rig drivers tasked with transporting highly-flammable gasoline. Obviously, since a pipeline transporting roughly 1.3 million barrels of gasoline and other petroleum products every day, and no idea of how long it will take to reopen, there are going to be an excess of gasoline tanker trucks on the highways; and their drivers will be exceeding the maximum hour limits to be behind the wheel and still be safe. What could possibly go wrong?

It is reported that as of late Thursday evening, the ruptured “section of the pipeline remains unexcavated over safety concerns.” The gasoline already spilled, conservative estimates of 250,000 gallons thus far, is for the time being “trapped in a mine water retention pond” out in the open. Cleanup crews attempting to dig out the damaged part of the pipeline say the amount of spilled gas is probably more like 336, 000 gallons. The EPA on site said that the gasoline “is unlikely to breach the retention pond and enter the nearby Cahaba River;” the Cahaba River is Alabama’s longest free-flowing stream and a breach would devastate the waterway.

Safety officials said local residents are safe because the open-air quarter-million gallons of gasoline isn’t near any homes. However, the pipeline’s operator, Colonial Pipeline, said although it did shut off the line, there is still gas in the pipeline that “may” be leaking. They are unaware if it is still leaking because the section that ruptured is “unexcavated” due to safety concerns over the safety of the cleanup crews. They are also unaware why the pipeline leaked in the first place and probably why local residents say they are concerned over the risk to their health as well as the environment.

It doesn’t matter that the gasoline is “confined” in a big open-air pond because it started leaking underground and besides the soil, surface and groundwater in jeopardy of contamination, gasoline fumes are toxic; but not toxic enough to declare a state of emergency over the health risk to Alabama and Georgia residents.

As transporters of refined petroleum products go, Colonial Pipeline is one of the largest-volume transporters in the world. Colonial provides gasoline for about 50-million people from Texas to New York and this is not its first, or even second major spill. The company has already had to settle with the federal government over Clean Water Act violations due to pipeline oil spills affecting five states in the late 1990s. And, the Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline had to pay the largest civil penalty in EPA history in 2001, $34 million, for a 1.4 million gallon oil spilled in another pipeline system.

The Federal government maintained that the typical culprits leading to major oil and gas spills, pipeline corrosion, mechanical damage, and operator error caused seven spills in the 1990s with three of those resulting from gross negligence. For this latest “state of emergency” spill, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said they will be issuing a “corrective action order to Colonial Pipeline” instructing them what they have to do to get the pipeline back in operating order.

As of Friday, there were about 519 Colonial employees and outside contractors working in shifts to remove the gasoline and clear away the spilled material around the suspected leak site. However, because there is so much highly-flammable gasoline confined to a small open-air area, the crews have to take extra precautions to protect themselves from vapors that are not only harmful if inhaled, they are potentially flammable if they reach certain concentrations. But still, the state of emergency dealt with allowing oil tanker drivers to stay behind the wheel longer than is safe and there are no “extra precautions” being taken to protect other drivers.

There is no completely safe way to transport something as highly flammable as gasoline, or crude oil for that matter. Besides the risk of conflagration, there is the little issue of near- and long-term health risks and environmental damage to consider. There is no way America, or any other country, can get completely free of using fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean there is no use trying.

If there is any good to come from this latest fossil fuel disaster, it may well be that the alleged “proven safety” of oil and gasoline-conveying pipelines is “proven” not to be errant. It may also be that the environmentalists and Native Americans in North Dakota protesting yet another dangerous pipeline’s construction will cite a real-time object lesson for why another rupture-prone pipeline is an ecological and environmental disaster waiting to happen.

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