CREDIT: Larry Mayer/AP Photo
It was the summer of 2011 in south-central Montana when 42,000 gallons of crude oil that was supposed to end up at a ExxonMobil refinery in Billings, Montana, accidentally wound up in the Yellowstone River.
Hundreds of residents along a 20-mile stretch of the Silvertip pipeline spill were evacuated, and an estimated 70 miles of the Yellowstone’s riverbank were contaminated. Property contamination, sick livestock and wildlife, and local health problems eventually spurred those who owned land nearby to sue, claiming the spill could have been avoided. “They should have known long before this happened that this river floods every spring and produces massive erosive forces,” attorney Jory Ruggiero told the Associated Press at the time.
Indeed, the historic spill was the result of what is known in the industry as “scouring.” Scouring occurs when flooding or rapid currents sweep away several feet of the river bed, exposing buried pipelines to potential damage.
Despite this, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has decided not to change its regulations to better protect underground pipelines from scouring, according to a letter reportedly seen by the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 19 and published in a report Sunday.
PHMSA reportedly made its decision just one year after Congress ordered it to evaluate its policies in the wake of incidents like Exxon’s Silvertip pipeline, and the incident just one month later when scouring caused 3,300 barrels of natural gasoline, a gas additive, to spill into the flooded Missouri River basin.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the agency decided more protections were not necessary because, over the past two decades, scouring contributed to just one in every 200 significant hazardous-liquid incidents involving pipelines. PHMSA reportedly noted that its “existing legislative authority is adequate to address the risks of hazardous liquid pipeline failures at major river crossings.”
Though scouring may have only contributed to a few significant incidents, flooding and riverbed erosion has caused pipeline spills that have dumped a total of 2.4 million gallons of crude oil and other hazardous liquids into U.S. waterways over the last 20 years, according to a report released by the Department of Transportation in January.
The protections that PHMSA was considering were requirements to increase the minimum depth at which pipelines can be buried underneath a riverbed. Currently, pipelines only have to be buried four feet underneath the riverbed — a problem, the Wall Street Journal noted, as U.S. Geological Survey data has shown that scour has already deepened the Missouri riverbed by 9 to 41 feet at 27 sites surveyed.
“The agency said it has no plans to change the 4-foot-depth rule,” the Journal’s report said. “The agency said it doesn’t need additional regulations to protect pipelines from scour because it already requires operators to assess and address flooding and other threats to pipelines. The agency also requires operators to inspect pipeline waterway crossings at least once every five years.”
PHMSA’s decision not to enhance its regulations is being taken by pipeline-safety advocates as a sign that they may be unable to win further attempts to increase underground pipeline protections, according to the Journal. Oversight and regulation of the oil and gas pipeline industry has indeed proven to be a major challenge, since choosing the routes of new pipelines and overseeing safety and maintenance is predominantly left up to the individual companies.
The agency’s decision also takes pressure off the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which if approved, would see 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil flowing through the American Midwest every day. The pipeline would cross more than 1,000 bodies of water in America, though TransCanada Corp. has pledged to bury the pipe “below the expected depth of scour during high flows on the waterways,” according to the Wall Street Journal.