Photo: Hayden Irwin / Flickr
What are the biggest consequences of a gas leak?
That’s what residents of Worth County in Northern Iowa are likely asking themselves following a pipeline failure that caused nearly 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel to spill onto private, agricultural land.
“It’s a big one – it’s significant,” says field office supervisor Jeff Vansteenburg of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The responsible party is Magellan, so they’ll have to bear the cost of cleanup.”
Ah, Magellan… Magellan Midstream Partners. The publicly-traded company responsible for a leak in Nebraska just three months ago that sent at least one person to an early grave. That leak involved ammonia, and took place in October 2016 in Burt County. The incident caused sudden road closures and neighborhood evacuations.
“All appropriate federal and state agencies have been notified,” the company assured in a statement.
Nine years ago, Magellan agreed to pay over $5 million in civil penalty fees to the EPA and the Department of Justice after allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. The company was accused of dumping gasoline and fuel oil from pipelines throughout the Midwest into local waterways over a period of ten years.
Now, the company can chalk up one more tally in its destructive history. Though the leak has been contained through the use of frack trucks, supplies lost could have easily serviced up to ten gas stations. Presently, there is no recorded damage to nearby groundwater sources, and Magellan is in the process of removing contaminated soil.
“We do not expect this incident to disrupt supply of gasoline, diesel and other refined petroleum products in the region,” said company spokesman Bruce Heine. “The cause of the incident remains under investigation.”
The spill came just two days after President Trump signed memorandums designed to advance the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects, which our Commander-in-Chief claims will bring over 30,000 jobs to unemployed Americans. The Keystone XL pipeline will actually create only 50 permanent jobs, according to a report by the State Department.
“If we are going to build pipelines in the United States, the pipes should be built in the United States,” President Trump stated with an air of confidence. “We build the pipelines; we want to build the pipe. We’re going to put a lot of workers, a lot of steel workers back to work.”
Of course, both projects have stemmed nationwide remonstrations.
So, what does happen when a gas leak occurs? Do noxious fumes spread throughout the air and affect breathability? Do supplies seep through nearby soil and damage groundwater? Can leaks harm or mortally wound local wildlife?
If you answered “all of the above,” you’re correct, and over the past seven years, America has witnessed time and time again what occurs when oil reserves neglect to “keep their contents to themselves.”
A failure in the Enbridge pipeline in 2010 caused an ugly spill of Canadian crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, contaminating nearly 40 miles in the process. The Exxon-Mobil Pegasus line burst in the small Alabama town of Mayflower just last year, leaving nearby wetlands looking like 30-acre sewage ports, and over 100,000 gallons spewed from a California pipeline in 2015, turning pelicans into blackbirds and leaving several of our feathered residents dead on neighboring shores.
Disasters like these are not uncommon. In 2013, for example, the U.S. oil and gas industry averaged 20 spills or leaks each day. And between 1986 and 2016, there were nearly 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents, resulting in 48 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in damage.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explains that damage inflicted by oil and gas spills can depend on a number of environmental factors, such as weather and the types of shorelines. Wave severity may also have an impact. Over time, the toxic effects of oil become less harmful through exposure to air, heat, sunlight and tidal action, but sometimes, that’s just not enough. Oil and gas contaminate birds’ eggs and suffocate marine life, while algae and water-based plants are at risk of sudden die-offs. Heavy oils can also contaminate soil and sediment, making cleanups particularly difficult and long-term.
According to the EPA, even moderate exposure to toxic fumes caused by a pipe leak can lead to symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea and vomiting. Individual chemicals in gasoline such as BTEX may also induce harsher symptoms like dizziness, “confusion” and respiratory problems.