On April 4th, 2017, the Dakota Access Pipeline suffered its first leak before it was even fully operational. A South Dakota pump station suffered a spill of “84 Gallons of Crude Oil” according to government regulators, as reported by the Guardian. That number is important, and I’ll get back to it in a minute, but let’s explore the ramifications of what this leak signifies first. While protests against the $3.8 billion dollar pipeline sparked last year were often met with brutal government crackdowns, (much worse that what was broadcast on every channel with regard to Russia’s recent anti-corruption protests mind you) the defenders of the pipeline were saying that “[i]t will be among the safest, most technologically advanced pipelines in the world.” This leak of 84 gallons seems to fly in the face of these arguments. The spill occurred at a pump station and, according to a company spokesperson, was within a “containment area.”
Now onto the “84 Gallons” number. Having worked closely alongside the EPA on many construction projects over the course of my career, I can say from experience that the number attached to any oil spill is often an estimation. To be clear, I was not at the pump station, nor was I working with any cleanup or recovery crews, but I have worked in similar situations for many years. Upon first reading of the reports, the “84” number seemed particularly odd to me as it jumped out immediately for its exactness. I’ve seen some contractors lose over 500 gallons and the reported number was agreed to be less than 50. Now could the pump station have had a flow-meter on the apparatus that was leaking? Absolutely, and that should be something that is looked into. However, in my experience, the agreed upon spill number in situations like these is merely an estimate, often under-reported, and should be investigated by an impartial agency.
What’s disturbing to me about this is actually two-fold. First, it occurred over a month ago and was only reported last night. This might be due to the filing of documents with the United States Army Corp of Engineers, which I can say from experience is an arduous task filled with many levels of bureaucratic review before final release. However, with a national spotlight on the DAPL and the plight of those protesting it, the USACE should make it a top priority to make the release of spill information to the public as near instantaneous as they can. By not doing so, it seems they are de facto falling on side of Energy Transfer Partners (the owner/operator of the DAPL) in any action being brought against them by the Water Protectors, regardless of the merit of this argument. I’ve worked with USACE divisions across this country, and many of them are stand-up people who believe in the greater good that the Army Corp can provide to the US citizens. By not releasing spill information instantaneously, however, they are tainting that reputation and seem to be exhibiting favoritism toward the pipeline company regardless of their intent.
Second, and of greater concern, was the spill itself. While it was reported that it was in a containment area, which my experience leads me to believe was a very well-regulated and defined apparatus that probably lived up to its name, it is still a leak. A leak before the pipeline was even fully operational is a bad sign of things to come. This week it was also reported an Energy Transfer Partners project was halted in Ohio, due to 18 spills of 2 million gallons of drilling materials, some in a wetland area. According to a Washington Post article, the worst spill covered 6.5 acres of wetland vegetation with “bentonite clay and bore-hole cuttings.” While permitted to do so to some extent, the FERC was concerned with the amounts being released, and blocked ETP from opening up eight areas to horizontal drilling. However, this seeming recklessness in regard to environmental impact exemplifies a long history of such behavior from the oil and gas industry going back to its inception. Leaks are treated as a norm for the industry and environmental impacts are downplayed or overlooked.
The DAPL pipeline was pushed by lawmakers, oil companies, financial institutions, and public figures over the protests of everyday people taking up the mantle of Water Protector under harsh and Un-American penalties. We were told that it’s the safest pipeline ever to be built, but a leak before it is even up and running seems to contradict those statements. Business as usual dictates that we continue along this path, generating profits in the short term for all those listed above. Given the grave situation we face with regard to Climate Change, can we really afford to continue doing business as usual?