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July 18, 2011

Two Views from the Thursday's Pipeline Safety Hearing

Montana Oil Spill - Associated Press We had several people at Thursday's pipeline safety hearing held by the House's Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, so we're sharing two of their write-ups on the hearing.

In the Midst of a Slew of Bad – the Sane Voices of Tester and Brown Emerge

by Jessica Eckdish, Sierra Club Beyond Oil Apprentice

At a time when countless events and actions are threatening public health and the environment, a few voices emerged at Thursday's pipeline safety hearing, put on by the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Two voices in particular, those of Ranking Member Corrine Brown of Florida and Senator Jon Tester of Montana, stood out as champions of ensuring the safety of our communities and environment.

To say the current state of pipeline safety is dire would be an understatement. Two years before the Exxon Mobil pipeline spill on July 1 sent an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil spewing into the Yellowstone River in Montana, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a warning letter to Exxon.

More recently, officials in Laurel, Montana, raised concerns about the pipeline, specifically citing where it crosses the river, in the months before the spill. The Exxon disaster is only one out of the countless numbers of spills that occur across our nation each year and cause irreparable environmental damages, health concerns, and death.

At the same time that these spills are affecting citizens nation-wide, Congress is debating the addition of a much more destructive pipeline – the Keystone XL, which would carry much more corrosive and dangerous tar sands crude oil from Canada to Texas. While tar sands crude oil poses a greater threat than conventional crude oil, the regulations imposed on it are exactly the same, increasing risk to the communities through which the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will run (PDF).

One such proposed route is through the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water to nearly two million Americans and supplies one-third of our irrigation water. A spill in this highly sensitive region would have detrimental impacts on America's heartland. The probability of this type of spill is illustrated by the fact that the original Keystone I has already leaked 12 times in its first year of operation.

Despite the countless threats this pipeline poses, many members of Congress are jumping at the chance to expand our nation's dependence on fossil fuel and increase profits for foreign oil companies like TransCanada, the owner of the proposed Keystone XL. Congressman Lee Terry of Nebraska proposed a bill currently under consideration that would effectively expedite the permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline.

At Thursday's hearing, two members of Congress stood up to this blatant disregard for public safety. Rep. Brown's opening statement at the pipeline safety hearing urged the House not to vote on the Terry bill, pointing out that "there are still major concerns with this project, and this same pipeline will be traveling across the Yellowstone River that is being affected today by the Exxon spill."

Senator Tester (D-MT), who has consistently questioned pipeline safety stressed the need to protect our land and water for future generations in his testimony, in which he argued, "We cannot be in the business of saying no to safety, transparency and accountability...We are in the business of making those values work for us, for the sake of our health, our safety, our economy and more importantly, for our kids and grandkids."

Ultimately, the fact is, our current safety measures are not even safe enough for regular oil, let alone the much more toxic and corrosive tar sands crude oil. Congress should focus its attention on increasing safety measures for existing pipelines, not speeding up the permitting process of an unsafe new one. Many members of Congress do not seem to understand this idea, but some, like Representative Brown and Senator Tester, recognize the value of prudence and stand tall in the face of foolishness. These champions are both greatly needed and appreciated in this fight to protect our communities and environment for future generations.

What Happened with the MT Exxon Pipeline, & Were There Warning Signs?

by Rosie Mansfield and Laura Wandres, Sierra Club media interns

The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure met Thursday to discuss the Silvertip Pipeline spill in Montana. Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-MT) attended the hearing as a guest, to voice concerns for his constituents and the timeline of the clean-up. President of Exxon Gary Pruessing said during the hearing that during the regular 2005 and 2009 inspections, there were no indications that caused concern for the safety of the pipeline.

The ruptured pipeline is currently inaccessible, leaving investigators, Exxon Mobil, and the public without many answers. Even once the Yellowstone River waters have receded, digging up the pipeline for inspection may take months, says Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Association (PHMSA).

Pruessing took the opportunity to clarify some confusion and suspicion over the procedure Exxon Mobil followed to shut down the section of pipeline. When pressure readings dropped for the pipeline, Exxon Mobil shut down the pump and eventually some of the valves. However, one valve in an area facing the nearby oil refinery was safe to re-open. So Exxon Mobil allowed this oil to flow downhill to the refinery and re-closed the valve.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institue of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have all deemed the area safe for public health. However, Dr. Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), voiced his concerns for a colleague, Alexis Bonogofsky, who is currently suffering from acute hydrocarbon exposure thought to have been contracted from the oil slick on her pastures. He says he fears Exxon Mobil is using the same "industry playbook" as the BP oil spill last summer.

It was not until independent investigators went to the Gulf, that the government acknowledged the potential for severe health risks, Inkley says.

Inkley says that if the Silvertip Pipeline passed its last inspection, maybe the inspection specifications are not adequate to protect the public or the environment. 

Inspectors did warn Exxon Mobil that the rising floodwaters may threaten the integrity of the pipeline near the Yellowstone River. However, flooding for the area is typical, which is likely why the Exxon Mobil operators did not respond 

"This is not just another story about oil," Rehberg says, "It's about our home." He says Montana culture is in the outdoors. 

Senator Jon Tester says he hopes to see everything restored, jobs at the refinery, even if the supply is low, and the health of the land.

While the Transportation subcommittee strived to reach the truth behind the Yellowstone disaster, a briefing later that day discussed the implications the spill will have on future pipeline projects. Led by concerned non-profit leaders, the message was clear that lax pipeline safeguards have lasting consequences.

Along with the mystery surrounding the cause of the Silvertip's leak, uncertainties continue to accumulate in Montana. While the EPA, NIH and CDC all agree that there are no current health risks due to the spill, speakers noted that the reality of hospitalized neighbors and oil-laden farmlands suggests studies may prove differently in time. As only 5-10% of this oil is likely to be captured in clean up procedures, the entire health of the Yellowstone's riparian community could be in jeopardy. 

Sarah Kendall of the Western Organization of Resource Councils shared that many farmers now worry about how they will make a living amongst the chaos. Who will pay for the damages incurred to their land and health? As the chemicals that were in the pipeline have yet to be disclosed to residents, many still don't even know what proper precautions to take while they await the approval of Exxon's clean-up plan. 

Yet amongst all of the uncertainty, Congress is still expediting the approval process of another pipeline, the Keystone XL project. With the carrying capacity of 20 times that of the Silvertip, Keystone XL would make 2,000 river crossings throughout the Midwest vulnerable to pollution, including the already fragile Yellowstone River. Anthony Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, notes that the pipeline’s transport of extremely corrosive bitumen will be much more dangerous as it is not regulated by pipeline safeguards yet.  

In opposition to the pipeline's rushed timeline in Congress, the speakers advocated for the reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act first. Ryan Salmon of the National Wildlife Federation urged that the "time to get pipeline safety right is before the pipeline is built" and advocated that Congress' November 1st deadline is simply "incompatible" to ensuring proper safeguards. 

As unfortunate as the recent and increasing oil disasters have been, the speakers were hopeful that the Yellowstone spill will serve a wake-up call to legislators. It is high time for Congress to get serious about pipeline safeguards so we can prevent future tragedies and protect our lands and waters.

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