The derailment of a train carrying Canadian oil sands near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, and the rupture of the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, comes at an awkward time for proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and the U.S. Department of State, which must decide whether or not to approve the project.
Last Wednesday (March 27), 14 cars of a 94-car train carrying Canadian oil sands near Parkers Prairie, Minn., derailed. Although only 3 cars either leaked or spilled oil, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimated that 15,000 gallons had contaminated the environment. The oil sands quickly thickened into a heavy tar-like consistency, and freezing temperatures made it difficult to remove.
Then on last Friday (March 29), an oil pipeline owned and operated by ExxonMobil carrying Canadian crude oil ruptured, causing at least 12,000 barrels of “heavy crude” to blanket the suburban town of Mayflower, Arkansas. The pipeline, which is known as the “Pegasus” pipeline and is more than six decades old, can transport up to 90,000 barrels of Canadian oil per day from Patoka, Illinois, to Nederland, Texas. On Monday, Exxon said that it was still investigating the cause of the spill, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified as “major.” At least 20 homes have been evacuated, and Exxon has deployed 15 vacuum trucks, 33 storage tanks and 120 workers to the cleanup site.
The following home video is from a Mayflower resident, showing oil gushing from between houses down into the street and puddling in front of driveways. Since uploaded to YouTube, the video has gone viral and has been viewed over 2 million times.The Mayflower spill marked a bad ending to an already tough week for Exxon. On March 25, the EPA and Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed that Exxon pay $1.7 million in fines stemming from a July 2011 oil spill in the Yellowstone River.
Opponents of Keystone XL used the “mess in Arkansas” to assail the proposed pipeline.
Ed Markey, the U.S. Representative for the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts, said, “Whether it’s the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or . . . [the] mess in Arkansas, Americans are realizing that transporting large amounts of this corrosive and polluting fuel is a bad deal for American taxpayers and for our environment.”
In the same vein, Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, an international environmental organization, told AlterNet, “whether or not to approve this Keystone pipeline, the pipe that just burst in Arkansas carries less than a tenth of the amount of this heavy tar sands crude that Keystone would. It’s about 80,000 barrels a day, not 900,000 barrels a day. So, multiply the pictures you’re seeing from Arkansas by 10, and then, of course, transpose them on top of the Ogallala Aquifer – not a pretty picture in any way.
Unfortunately, however, when oil spills like the one in Mayflower, Arkansas, occur, they feed into a number of misperceptions about U.S. oil spills. Namely, that oil spillage has increased dramatically, that there are more spills occurring more frequently in more places with more damage, and that things are only going to get worse. In reality, however, greater public awareness and media exposure has led to greater compliance in reporting of smaller spills, feeding the perception that spillage is on the rise in the U.S. Regardless, last year there were 364 spills from pipelines that released about 54,000 barrels of oil and refined projects. This is of significant concern, especially because oil companies, state governments, and EPA seem to have no clue as to how to adequately respond to oil spills when they do happen.
This is particularly true of diluted bitumen like oil sands, which has a propensity to sink in water and therefore behaves differently than other forms of crude. Officials are still struggling to clean up the Kalamazoo River after a massive oil sands spill in July 2010. Heavy rains caused the spilled oil to travel 35 miles downstream before it was contained. And in March, EPA issued an administrative order requiring Canadian company Enbridge, Inc., to do additional dredging to prevent submerged oil from migrating further downstream to areas where it would be more difficult to remove.
“We’ll never get all the oil out of the system, that’s for sure,” Michigan State University ecology professor Steve Hamilton told the Huffington Post. “This is a very different kind of material, so it requires special considerations in terms of the environment, human health and accidents. And that extends to ports and refineries where they handle the material.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that little is known about what’s in diluted bitumen. The oil industry considers its diluent formulas proprietary information and therefore does not share those formulas with regulators. This information, however, is very good information to have in an emergency clean-up situation, something the EPA recognized in its first Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone XL in 2011: “We believe an analysis of potential diluents is important to establish the potential health and environmental impacts of any spilled oil, and responder/worker safety, and to develop response strategies.”
Whether or not these concerns will be enough to sway the Obama administration into rejecting Keystone XL is uncertain. Keep in mind that while the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) encourages early consideration of environmental impacts, in an open manner, with meaningful public participation, it does not mandate a particular result. But as the nation awaits a decision from the State Department and then President Obama over Keystone XL, some people wonder if they’ll be next to experience an Easter like Mayflower’s.
“We’re just scared as hell,” said Jim Tarnick of Fullerton, Nebraska, a farmer who lives in the path of the proposed pipeline. “Keystone will travel through 320 acres of my farm, and as close as 150 feet in front of my farmhouse.”