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Montana suggests pipelines should be safe

Following the spill of more than 1,500 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River from the rupture of the Exxon-Mobile Silvertip pipeline, Governor Schweitzer created the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council. Of the more than 1,500 barrels spilled, Exxon-Mobile reported that they cleaned up about 10 barrels or significantly less than 1% at a cost of $135 million. They also paid a fine to Montana of $1.6 million, which included $300,000 in cash and a promise of $1.3 million to be spent on “future environmental projects”.  The charge to the Council from the Governor was to,

advise the Governor on the status of all existing oil pipelines running underneath Montana’s rivers and stream beds. The Council will review all documentation necessary to analyze and critique the safety of each pipeline and the standards required at the time of the installation of each pipeline. The Council will assess the risk of ruptures and leaks in all sections of pipeline that cross rivers and streams.

In it’s report to the Governor, the Council relied on work done by the Federal Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). Unfortunately, as the Council noted in it’s report,

The problem is that PHMSA is a relatively small, certainly understaffed federal agency. PHMSA devoted a lot of resources to Montana following the break of the Silvertip Pipeline in the Yellowstone River in July 2011. It inspected about 100 river crossings of 100 feet or more and some of the nearby smaller crossings. It discovered several “at risk” areas, and is overseeing the companies’ efforts to correct the problem crossings. Still, PHMSA could only inspect the major river crossings in Montana, and smaller creek crossings that are narrow or have intermittent flows, were not addressed.

Click for bigger

As noted on this graphic, the agencies identified 7,842 stream crossings of pipelines 8-inches to 42-inches in diameter in the state. In all, the Council identified more than 9,000 pipeline stream crossings in Montana. They cited 88 crossings of 21 navigable waters in the state such as the Yellowstone River. In all, PHMSA inspected only “about 100 river crossings” of 100 feet in width or greater.

In their report to the Governor, the Council pretty much followed the recommendations of the Montana Petroleum Association.

RECOMMENDATION: Support adequate funding for PHMSA and the PSC for their work to oversee pipeline safety.

RECOMMENDATION: Support all reasonable efforts to require pipeline companies to have state of the art leak detection systems in place.

RECOMMENDATION: Support all reasonable efforts to require emergency plans that allow the fastest possible valve shut off for stopping the flow of pipeline contents in case of a rupture.

RECOMMENDATION: Support local government and PSC efforts to obtain and operate notification systems for citizens to be informed as soon as possible when ruptures occur.

The Montana Petroleum Association believes that the PHMSA is “well positioned to regulate the pipeline industry”, just as they did before and after the Yellowstone spill regardless of being “a relatively small, certainly understaffed federal agency”.  As for public notification in the case of a spill, which was one of the major complaints during the Yellowstone spill, “MPA would support such notification only when necessary to protect the public’s safety and through the existing emergency alert system”.

Exposed pipeline reported by college student in Lewis & Clark County

Recommendations include a lot of “support”, such as, “Support all reasonable efforts”, but not a lot of action. As to how this aligns with the charge of the Council to “prevent future failures that could damage Montana’s pristine rivers and streams”, I’m not sure when we  looked at only about 1% of existing river crossings, and found “several at risk areas” and now work began this week on the new Keystone XL pipeline which will add several more critical river crossings in Montana and carry a much more hazardous cargo of toxic tar sands oil. It appears to me that Montana will continue to rely on insubstantial spill response rather than on spill prevention.


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