Frequent Spills Signal Need for Inspection, Regulation

Environmental Commentary by John Messeder

This winter, an oil spill from a pipeline in Montana caused residents and businesses to replace their normal Yellowstone River water supply with water hauled in by trucks. The pipeline owner estimated the 12-inch pipe drained about 50,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota beneath the river’s ice, making the oil nearly impossible to locate, and even more difficult to clean up.

Oil also was detected in the river 60 miles downstream, in Billings — Montana’s largest city.

The spill was reminiscent of a 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River, and the 2013 spill from an unmaintained, uninspected tank near Charleston, W.V. The latter leaked 7,000 gallons of coal cleaning chemicals into the Elk River, causing 300,000 river water users to rely on water trucked to that state from Pennsylvania. In April, 2014, a train carrying crude derailed near Lynchburg, Va., spilling oil into the James River. Last month, a similar train derailed along the Kanawha River in West Virginia, and narrowly missed spilling oil into the water.

Those spills and others illustrate the increasing risks inherent in short-funding state and federal inspection and regulation efforts.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told the Associated Press the Yellowstone spill was avoidable, but “we just didn't have the folks on the ground” to prevent it. According to Tester, more frequent inspections by regulators are needed, and older pipelines should face stricter safety standards.

Yet, Tester has been a consistent proponent of the Keystone XL — 1,200 miles of a 36-inch diameter conduit that will, as proposed, cross his state and carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries on Texas’s Gulf Coast. Its path would straighten the current dog-legged route, create 35 permanent full-time jobs, and provide the raw material for refined petroleum exports destined mostly, according to the industry, for Asian markets.

For several years, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has suffered budget cuts that have forced it to rely on self-reporting submitted by Marcellus Shale drillers. That is taking the fox’s word that the hen house is secure.

One day, the air is clouded with chicken feathers and the now-plump fox says he doesn’tknow what happened but if you’ll give him some money, he’ll clean up the feathers and buy more chickens.

In Pennsylvania’s chicken house, spills have gone unreported for months to more than a year, and public and private water supplies have been replaced with commercially bottled water. That’s good for Pennsylvania American Water Co., not so good for folks who have relied for generations on wells and nearby rivers.

The Keystone State’s water supplies have suffered from a variety of ailments, including industrial leakage, runoff and, in some cases, deliberate dumping. The Susquehanna River has a dwindling smallmouth bass fishery for which, so far, no specific cause has been labeled. The DEP recently cautioned fish lovers to eat no more than one catfish a month from certain portions of the river to avoid poisoning by PCBs that the fish collect along the river bottom.

Newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf made promises during his campaign that may be difficult to keep, at least without raising taxes. His proclaimed intent to levy a 5 percent extraction tax on Marcellus Shale gas may face insurmountable opposition among legislators who have used industry-provided cash for their campaigns.

His choices of environmental and other advisers should give us hope that the tide of “profits now and let the grandchildren deal with the costs” is shifting. Wolf’s Chief of Staff, Kathleen McGinty, has served as DEP secretary. He has tapped former Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Quigley to head the DEP, and former DCNR Deputy Secretary Cindy Dunn to head that agency.

Quigley and Dunn both have held leadership posts in PennFuture, a citizen-supported proponent of resource conservation.

The opportunity to halt fracking is long past; Quigley and Dunn should offer balance, and help the natural gas industry to keep its promise of “responsible resource development” in the Keystone State.

Wolf, himself, offers a bit of contradiction. His preferred transportation is a Jeep Wrangler, and his name heads a multi-generational business. He likes to fish, and opposes New York State’s moratorium on Marcellus gas drilling.

A 5 percent tax on the value of natural gas extracted from beneath Pennsylvanians’ feet should help pay for more inspectors to keep track of the industry, but there will also be a push to use some of the money for infrastructure to support our economy and the lives and education for our young to create new economies.

The futures of millions of downstream water users depend on the balance he strikes.

Readers may contact John Messeder at Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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