Oil spills, in and of themselves, are bad news.
They’re bad for the environment, as the petrochemicals foul waters, wildlife and human habitat.
They’re bad for business, especially ones relying on a clean natural resources.
But bad spills can still prompt good responses. Swift action. Effective clean-ups. Transparency on behalf of the responsible party.
Unfortunately, this last pipeline rupture in California was not that.
The 140,000 gallon spill came from a 17-mile long, 40-year-old pipeline owned by Amplify Energy Corp. An anchor strike from the influx in COVID-19-related cargo shipping traffic in Huntington Beach likely caused the 13-inch long gash in the pipe, according to preliminary reports. Divers Tuesday found a piece of the pipe bent and dragged 105 feet, according to USA Today.
But beyond the strike itself, news now tells us what we’ve come to expect — revelations of botched responses.
Yes, the company had an automated leak detection system and a 24/7-staffed control room. Yes, an alarm should have been triggered and people notified.
Yes, the first report came by way of a bystanding ship that noticed the sheen. Yes, Amplify did get a low-pressure, “possible failure” alarm on the pipe. No, they did not shut it down until three hours later. No they did not inform the National Response Center for more than six hours. Yes, the Coast Guard was told about the spill from bystanding ships reporting the sheen, but no it did not investigate until nearly 12 hours later.
In Michigan, we have our own stories, including the 840,000 gallon spill (nearly seven times the amount spilled in California) into the Kalamazoo River system via Enbridge’s 6B pipeline. Crude pumped for 17 hours before the response. Afterward, federal reports rapped Enbridge for knowing its 41-year old pipeline was in bad shape, and its own Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for not doing its job.
Enbridge’s Line 5 in Michigan was built in 1953. It too has seen anchor strikes and gaps in its required protective coating. What to do with it — whether to shut it down outright or run it through a utility tunnel under the lakebed — has effectively left it in stasis, operating and aging.
The Canadian government (Enbridge is Canada-owned and the majority of the 22 million gallons of crude oil and gas a day Line 5 transports is refined for use in Canada and abroad) recently invoked a 1977 treaty with the United States that will bring the issue to the national stage.
No pipeline can operate indefinitely, no matter what some may posit about 68-year-old pipelines “built to last.”
Even with supposed fail-safes, errors happen. But it’s the responses to these errors that eat away confidence in the ability to make good on a bad spill. Parties, now federal, state and private and nonprofit, need to quit stalling and resolve what to do with this aging infrastructure that puts 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply at risk — before the spill.
That would be good news.