Gazette opinion: Heed flood lessons to prevent pipeline spills

2013-01-13T00:10:00Z 2013-01-13T09:14:04Z Gazette opinion: Heed flood lessons to prevent pipeline spills The Billings Gazette
January 13, 2013 12:10 am

The icy January stream flowing quietly past snow-white banks gives no hint of the emergency that roiled the Yellowstone River on July 1, 2011. Unprecedented flooding that spring raised the river level repeatedly and scoured away the protective layer of soil covering ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline. Late that night, the 12-inch-diameter pipeline broke, spilling an estimated 1,500 barrels of oil (about 63,000 gallons) into the river downstream from the Laurel Highway 212 bridge.

The incident has cost ExxonMobil $135 million. The company and the state of Montana agreed to a payment of $1.6 million for water pollution violations. Additionally, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks this winter continues to investigate the spill’s natural resource damages. ExxonMobil reburied a new section of pipeline several times deeper than the pipe that broke in the flood.

However, federal pipeline regulations haven’t changed to reflect the flood hazard the Yellowstone River spill demonstrated.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released two reports: one on the Yellowstone River spill, the other on pipeline spills into waterways nationwide. The latter report was required under Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act, which became law in January 2012 after being introduced in August 2011 by Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester in response to the Yellowstone spill.

According to the PHMSA report, 5,094 hazardous liquid pipeline accidents were reported between 1991 and 2009, of which 2,653 were considered “significant incidents.” Only 13 accidents occurred at inland water crossings, but all of those were “significant.”

“A depletion of cover, sometimes in the waterway and other time in new channels cut by floodwaters, has been a factor in all 13 of these failures,” the PHMSA report said.

In 2010, two pipeline spills occurred at water crossings and five occurred in 2011. Depletion of pipeline cover was a factor in three of those incidents, including the Yellowstone spill.

The data is conclusive: PHMSA’s 48-inch cover requirement has failed to protect America’s waterways.

Only a small percentage of pipeline accidents involve waterway spills, but these incidents are always serious, damaging water quality for people and wildlife, damaging property and businesses and costing pipeline operators many millions.

The PHMSA report says the agency will report to Congress again within one year “with an update on plans to ensure the sufficiency of PHMSA regulations requiring pipeline depth of cover.”

After spending a whole year studying this problem, which should have been apparent many years ago, given the history of accidents, PHMSA ought to be able to propose a better standard much, much sooner than a year from now.

New pipelines are being planned, existing pipelines require maintenance. That work must meet pipeline-safety standards based on the knowledge that what’s on the books has failed too many times already.

We call on Baucus and Tester to keep prodding the regulators to address this rule deficiency as expeditiously as possible. Newly elected Rep. Steve Daines also should press the agency to act.

Montana’s unprecedented floods of 2011 were followed by the driest year on record in Billings and southeastern Montana. Nobody knows what 2013 will bring, but with 70,000 pipeline water crossings nationwide, it’s certain that somewhere flooding will again scour away cover and cause a spill.

As Baucus said last week, “Transparency and oversight are critical to making sure we never have to go through the devastation of the Yellowstone River oil spill again.”

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