Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keystone Pipeline - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Oil spill bird

A farmer lights ground water bubbling up from a fresh water spring on his farm in Western Pennsylvania.  The gas bubbles started one day after this property was fracked for natural gas extraction.  The farmer's horses stopped drinking this water the day the bubbles appeared.  This spring flows into a creek which feeds a larger river.

I've been keeping a file lately of all the various environmental catastrophes in the U.S. I once kept the clippings in a manila folder but lately I've had to move it to an expando-file.

In the latest event, a ship and a barge containing "bunker oil" (an thick, viscous oil used as fuel for marine vessels) collided in the Houston Shipping Channel. Officials estimate that 168,000 gallons of oil escaped into the canal (and if experience is our guide, this is probably an under-estimate since energy companies are not known for being candid). The Channel, which links the Gulf of Mexico and America's largest petro-chemical complex is now closed in order to try to contain the damage.

The occurrence previous to this one was a coal ash leak into the Dan River in North Carolina. The broken pipe that leaked millions of gallons of sludge (containing copper, arsenic, selenium, cadmium and aluminum, among other hazardous materials) into the river was owned by Duke Energy.

It turned out that environmental groups had been trying to get Duke Energy to clean up its act regarding coal ash ponds for quite a while. They'd even filed lawsuits to make that happen but, low and behold, when the new Republican governor (who happened to be a 30-year employee of Duke Energy) came into office, he ordered the state to take over the lawsuits. North Carolina then settled with Duke for the measly sum of $99,000 and no promise to improve their practices. Oh, and guess what? The lawyer who is supposedly on the side of the state in this latest spill had also worked as counsel for Duke Energy. Can anyone say Fox and Chicken House?

Prior to that, of course, was the chemical leak into the Elk River in West Virginia on January 9, The chemical storage facility was owned by a rather shady company named Freedom Industries. Freedom Industries eventually owned up to 10,000 gallons of a substance called MCHM leaking into the Elk River, which affected the water of over 300,000 West Virginians. No one appeared to know quite what MCHM, which is used in the coal production process, consisted of - not Freedom Industries (who declined to give up its formula) or environmental officials.

At first, West Virginians were told, not only not to drink their water, but not even to bath in it. They were to use it only to flush toilets. Eventually, everyone one seemed to simply throw up their hands and say, "oh, go head, it's probably okay". This, even though by February 5, school drinking supplies were still testing positive for chemicals.

Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy and skittered away (probably to start another shadowy corporation somewhere else under a different name. Too bad, so sad, West Virginians. And state officials were still adamantly stating that "this has nothing to do with the coal industry, NOTHING!"

And then there are the earthquakes. These are happening in several states where fracking is utilized (Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio) but most notably in Oklahoma.

Between 1975 and 2008, Oklahoma typically experienced one to three 3.0 or greater magnitude earthquakes per year. Between 2009 and 2013, that number grew to 40 a year. So far, since January 1 of 2014, Oklahoma has experienced over 500 quakes of all sizes.

Oklahoma is home to 4,400 fracking wells and fracking is said to be the "most reasonable hypotheses' as the cause of the increased earthquake activity. But we really didn't need science to tell us that. Study a graphic of what fracking is and does and your commonsense will tell you the same.

Over three years ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy spilled 800,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. This kind of oil is known as "dilbit" (for diluted bitumen). It is so thick, it has to be diluted with gas to keep it flowing and it erodes pipelines much more quickly than regular oil. All this time later and while the Kalamazoo River has made progress in its clean-up, it is far from the pure, clear river it used to be.

Recently, the Sierra Club and EarthJustice revealed that hidden cameras showed that Louisville Gas and Electric was pumping its coal ash wastewater directly and continuously into the Ohio River. The company has a permit allowing them to do this "occasionally". "Oh, well," says the State of Kentucky, "it all depends on what the meaning of the word occasional is".

In 2013, the small town of Mayflower, Arkansas was the victim of an oil leak in an Exxon pipeline they weren't even aware ran below their homes. Two hundred and ten thousand gallons of heavy oil tar from Canada ran down their streets and into their homes. Twenty-two buildings were evacuated but the rest of the near-by residents weren't even told they could be affected by the chemicals until weeks later. By then, many of them were experiencing horrendous headaches, rashes and vomiting.

Exxon paid lip service to the damage it had caused Mayflower and then essentially, walked away from their responsibility.

Of course, if we go back far enough, we'll find the British Petroleum oil spill, still the largest in history, in which 800,000 gallons of crude oil were pumped into the Gulf of Mexico for a period of 87 days. Eleven people were killed in the initial explosion and 17 were injured. Sixteen thousand miles of coastline were affected in five states. Eight thousand birds, reptiles and mammals died in the first 6 month. We still don't know all the long-term consequences of this spill.

And the grand-daddy of them all - the Exxon-Valdez - celebrated its 25th anniversary on March 24. On that day, the Exxon-Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, one of the most pristine areas in all of America. Almost 11 million gallons of crude oil were released into the sound, despoiling 1,300 miles of rugged, remote coastline. After a quarter of a century, oil is still visible on the beaches. Thirteen of 32 monitored wildlife populations are considered "recovered or recovering". The pod of Orcas that considered the Sound home lost 15 of their 22 members after the spill and have never produced a calf since.

So, hell, yes - the coal, gas, oil and mining industries have proven to be such reliable and responsible citizens, by all means, let's approve the Keystone Pipeline. What could possibly go wrong?

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