Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: What Every Local
Government Should Know About Pipeline Safety
James M. Pates (City Attorney, Fredericksburg, VA)
II. THE PROBLEM OF PIPELINE SAFETY
The summer of 1996 has not been a good season for pipeline accidents. Tragedy has struck twice, first in South Carolina and then again in Texas. On June 26, an interstate oil pipeline along the Reedy River near Greenville, South Carolina, ruptured shortly before midnight, spilling almost a million gallons of diesel fuel into the river. For hours, fuel poured into the river, killing an estimated 34,000 fish and other wildlife and threatening public water supplies before an emergency crew of 500 workers could stanch the flow. By the time the leak was stopped the next day, the pipeline's owner, Colonial Pipeline Company, had experienced the largest spill in the company's 34-year history and the state of South Carolina, its largest ever. The state Department of Natural Resources later catalogued 23 fish species killed, including catfish, largemouth bass, suckers, shad, carp, bullhead, and warmouth, as well as turtles, muskrat, snakes, crawfish, and wood ducks. 1
On August 24, disaster struck again, this time in the small town of Kemp, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. A pipeline carrying liquid butane ruptured, creating a massive cloud of foul-smelling gas. Two teenagers, Jason Stone, 17, and Danielle Smalley, 18, jumped into their pickup truck to warn others. Sparks from the engine ignited the cloud of gas, causing an explosion that sent a fireball into the air that could be seen 40 miles away. Both teenagers were killed. 2
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. In 1994 alone, there were 465 oil and gas pipeline accidents reported in the United States, more than one every day. These accidents resulted in 22 deaths and 1,968 injuries in a single year. A conservative estimate of property losses from these accidents was $154 million, not including damages, fines, or cleanup costs. 3 Nor was 1994 atypical. Over a ten-year period from 1985 to 1994, there was an average of 448 accidents, with 24 deaths and 310 injuries, per year:
The effects of these accidents on the affected localities can be devastating. For example:
Given the vast system of pipelines crisscrossing this country, such accidents are hardly surprising. Roughly 1,800,000 miles of gas and liquid pipelines 8 carry hazardous products, including crude oil, refined petroleum, liquified natural gas, carbon dioxide, and anhydrous ammonia to urban areas and through environmentally sensitive regions across the country. As population growth and intense development intrude upon many of these pipelines, most of which were built 30 or 40 years ago, the environmental costs of accidents continue to skyrocket and local safety concerns increase daily.
Although gas and hazardous liquid pipelines have similar construction and safety standards, the size and pressure of these pipelines vary considerably, as do their risks. The nation's natural gas pipeline system is roughly eight times longer than its liquid one, extending to almost every street in most cities. Many municipalities operate their own gas systems. When these lines break, the gas tends to burn out of control until its source can be extinguished. The initial explosion often kills or injures people in the vicinity and destroys buildings by fire. Since the product is gaseous, it dissipates quickly and poses minimal environmental risk.
Liquid pipelines, on the other hand, were usually built in more remote areas in order to transport crude oil from the wellhead to the refinery or refined petroleum from Texas or offshore terminals to major urban centers. When these lines break, oil or other hazardous liquids flow into nearby streams and rivers, contaminating public water supplies or groundwater. Sometimes, when the product being transported is highly flammable, such as liquified natural gas or gasoline, the risks are both safety-related and environmental.
What is the safety record of the pipeline industry? This is difficult to assess for several reasons. As for the gas pipeline industry, no ready means of comparison exists since all natural gas is transported via pipeline. As for the oil pipeline industry, pipelines have an accident history that ranks better per ton-mile transported than that of rail or motor carriers, but worse than that of barges and other water carriers. For example, from 1982 to 1992, oil pipelines spilled a total of 109.7 million gallons of petroleum products, which is 240 percent more than was spilled by tankships and barges. 9
The author is unaware of any comprehensive studies that
have quantified the cumulative environmental effects of oil
pipeline spills, but a recent report by the Wilderness
Society draws a parallel with the highly publicized Exxon
Valdez accident in March 1989. As the authors of that report
The report noted, however, that reliable data documenting
the environmental impact of these accidents is
The truth is that pipeline accidents generally do not attract widespread media attention or government reaction because their effects are generally local, the pipelines themselves are "out of sight, out of mind," and liquid pipeline accidents do not generally produce as sensational television footage as the blackened beaches and oil-soaked birds that accompany tanker accidents. But for communities such as Greenville, Fredericksburg, Houston, and Mounds View, these pipeline accidents will long be remembered, not only for their effects but also for how they could happen again.
Copyright © 1999 by Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc.
Updated: December 4, 1999