A massive diesel spill in Iowa highlights a problem
The Short Version
An estimated 138,000 gallons of diesel fuel sprung from a pipeline leak in rural Iowa that started Wednesday morning. The leak appears to have been fixed for now and cleanup is underway. While the leak is significant, it was stopped before it had a chance to enter any water source or a nearby wildlife refuge. However, this is not the first leak the managing company has had and highlights a need for greater inspection.
A Bit More Detail
A leak in the multi-state underground diesel pipeline operated by Magellan Midstream Partners dumped something in the neighborhood of 138,000 gallons of the fuel into a field in north-central Iowa. The leak was discovered sometime early Wednesday as the fuel reached the surface of the snow-covered field. Reports of the leak did not reach the press, however until Thursday.
Jeff Vansteenburg of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told the Des Moines Register that trucks were doing their best to retrieve as much of the liquid as possible. The liquid that is loose can be recovered and refined at Magellan’s terminal, minimizing the amount of product lost. However, once all the liquid has been removed, the contaminated soil must be removed and replaced as well and that’s where things can get expensive. Removing contaminated soil requires special equipment and hazardous waste transport.
Trucks had managed to recover approximately 25,000 gallons of the diesel or slush-diesel mixture by late Wednesday and hoped to complete that task by early Friday, though incoming winter weather could possibly interfere with that project.
Generally speaking, pipelines such as this one, which runs through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, are relatively safe. Similar pipelines criss-cross the country, most of them carrying multiple refined products such as Diesel, Gasoline, Jet fuel, Natural gasoline, Naptha, Propane, Natural Gas, and Butane. Using pressurized pipelines such as the one in Iowa dramatically reduces the transportation costs for refined petroleum products. Without these pipelines, prices could jump as much as two dollars a gallon.
However, the Iowa leak underscores a problem well known within the industry: there are not enough inspectors to help prevent leaks such as this one from occurring. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is responsible for overseeing all the pipelines in the US, regardless of which private company is managing them. While the managing companies have their own inspectors, the federal agency is ultimately responsible for making sure the pipelines are in good condition. The problem? They only have 533 inspectors covering the entire nation. That works out to about one inspector for every 5,000 miles of pipeline.
The inability of the federal government to adequately inspect and manage the nation’s pipeline system is what makes new projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL so controversial. While leaks might not be very common, when they do occur they often grow very large very quickly and the opportunity for environmental disaster is tremendous.
Another pipeline operated by Magellan developed a leak last October, according to the Omaha World-Herald, which killed one person and led to the evacuation of 23 households. That particular pipeline was carrying anhydrous ammonia. In November, several pipelines had to be shut down and inspected after a series of earthquakes rattled Oklahoma.
While the use of pipelines is vital to the US economy, it’s clear that much more needs to be done to secure their safety and prevent leaks before adding any more to the system.