As Native Americans protesters face arrest in North Dakota for blocking the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a gasoline pipeline spill is currently unfolding in the South. The leak has prompted Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to declare states of emergency.
The Colonial Pipeline, which runs from Houston to New York, began leaking on September 9, spilling 250,000 gallons of gasoline, or 6,000 barrels. The pipeline was built in 1962, and the current leak in Helena, Alabama, is the largest one Colonial Pipeline has experienced in 20 years, Reuters noted.
AL.com reported that according to the Colonial Pipeline company’s spokesperson, Bill Berry, the pipeline could still be leaking:
“The leaking pipeline was shut down [last] Friday after the leak was discovered, but Berry said there may be additional gas still inside the pipeline. The leaking section of pipeline hasn’t been excavated yet due to safety precautions, so Berry said the condition of the pipeline and cause of the leak is still unknown.”
Hundreds of employees and contract workers face health risks from inhaling vapor as they work overtime to clean up the spill, which the company says is contained to a mining retention pond. AL.comreports “the leak was discovered at the inactive mine site by employees of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.”
Fortunately, the company is taking a variety of steps to mitigate potential damage.
“Crews have installed temporary plugs in the pipeline on either side of the spill location, and gasoline is being extracted from the affected section of pipeline at those blockage sites,” AL.com explains.
Local conservationists say Colonial is doing its part to provide a swift and safe cleanup. The company is working with the Cahaba Riverkeeper and Tri-State Bird and Rescue to “minimize environmental impact.” As AL.com noted,“Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler called the company’s ‘aggressive’ response ‘refreshing’ compared to how some companies deal with environmental spills.”
“Every concern we’ve had, they’ve addressed with really no pushback,” Butler said. “As bad as any situation like this is, all you can really ask is that they be responsible and accountable and I certainly haven’t found any fault in their response so far.”
Butler believes that “if the weather holds, the gasoline will not reach the river,”AL.com reports. Even so, a thunderstorm is expected in Helena on Sunday, increasing the risk that it could cause the spilled gasoline to spread into other water sources.
Some residents are confident the situation is being handled, but Billy McDanal, who lives 2.3 miles from the leak, expressed concerns over the weather forecast:
“If it starts raining that’s got to go somewhere; it’s going to overflow that [mining retention] pond,” he said. “I am worried about the drinking water because it does get in the Cahaba River and it’s all flowing toward the pumping station … and if it gets into the pumping station it’s going to get into our water.”
Though the stated location of the leak at the inactive mine site was convenient — and the company’s response has been satisfactory — the leak itself still raises concerns about the safety of energy pipelines in the United States. The Colonial Pipeline company claims it has kept the line’s infrastructure up-to-date in a variety of ways:
“Technological advancements have played a vital role in Colonial’s history, from computers that control lines, open and close valves and monitor the pressure inside the pipe, to environmentally friendly geodesic domes atop storage tanks, to ‘smart pigs’ that inspect the inside of pipelines and ensure they are safe to operate.”
In spite of these upgrades, however, the leak still occurred, calling into question the effectiveness of such measures. Similarly, though proponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline claim it is safe, lapses like the one in Helena raise concerns, especially considering the Dakota pipeline is intended to carry crude oil, which can cause severe long-term damage to ecosystems. Though the infrastructure of the Dakota pipeline would admittedly be new — and leaks usually occur in older equipment — ruptures are still possible in newer pipelines.
In the meantime, the governors of both Georgia and Alabama have declared states of emergency, not due to environmental concerns, but over the gas shortage that will result from the leak. After Colonial Pipeline announced Thursday there would be a delay in restarting the pipeline because “work activity was intermittent overnight due to unfavorable weather conditions that caused gasoline vapors to settle over the site,” the price of gasoline futures rose six percent.
Whether or not the spill will cause environmental damage remains to be seen, but as aging and inadequate infrastructure results in leakages of natural gas, radioactive material, and other chemicals across the country, one thing is clear: Americans may want to consider curbing their appetite for potentially harmful sources of energy.