Oil spill in South Dakota

From ToxicLeaks

TransCanada would have you believe that the pipeline they build are ultra-modern, full-proof pieces of infrastructure and that there is no risk whatsoever that these pipeline might threaten the nature and the people of the lands they cross. The oil spill that was discovered in Freeman South Dakota on April 2nd is but another painful reminder that transporting oil (especially oil drilled in tar sands) is everything but safe and that it's not a question of whether the pipelines will fail or not, it's a question of when they will, and how bad they will damage the people and the environment of the areas that experience oil spills.

A pipeline praised for its state of the art technology and its safety[edit | edit source]

The Keystone pipeline that leaked on April 2nd was finished in 2010 by TransCanada and it linked the Canadian province of Alberta to the American midwest. This first section of the pipeline begins in Hardisty, Alberta, at the heart of the Canadian tar sands where unique ecosystems are being savaged. That in itself is a tragedy and should have warranted a total rejection of these pipelines. However, that is not the only issue. The pipeline snakes through several American states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and finally Illinois where it ends in Patoka. And every acre of land the pipeline runs through stands at risk of experiencing a spill of the thick, sticky oil drilled out of the tar sands. This risk was swept away by TransCanada. When this section of the pipeline opened, they stated : “We take pride in our long-standing reputation as a safe pipeline operator and socially responsible company.” They added that their experience enabled them to build state-of-the-art pipelines that eliminated all risk for the people and the environment : “Pipelines are the safest method of moving oil. TransCanada has been in the pipeline business for over 50 years and is a leader with one of the best pipeline safety and operating records in the industry. To ensure the safety and integrity of Keystone, TransCanada will monitor and control the pipeline system from a computerized control centre that is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” This latest spill in South Dakota is the proof that they were lying to us and that they are utterly unable to guarantee the safety of their pipelines.

A leak discovered by sheer luck despite high-tech detection system[edit | edit source]

Indeed the most worrisome part of the story is that the leak was not detected by TransCanada's high-tech computerized system, it was detected because someone happened to walk by and notice the huge pools of oil that had formed because of the leak. Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmentalist website 350.org , summed up the irony of the situation quite well : “It appears that Transcanada's 'sophisticated pipeline leak detection system' involves passerby noticing pools of oil”.

In a video shot by Spotted Eagle, an activist fighting the extension of this pipeline, we can clearly see that the TransCanada representatives are clueless and that they are completely taken off guard by the leak. Shaun Howard, one of the people from TransCanada recognizes that the detection system has failed completely : “We don't know what happened here, and we don't know where it is coming from”. What's more, several days after the leak had been found, TransCanada was still unable to locate the exact point from which the oil was leaking, let alone fix it ! Spotted Eagle expressed her frustration on her facebook page : “Our worst fears have been realized. They are still investigating…. Haven't isolated the leak.” However, Howard still had the gall to claim that the discovery of the leak was a success for TransCanada because it demonstrated its ability to react quickly. The landowner who encountered the leak clearly disagreed because he claimed that looking for oil leaks wasn't his job and he didn't have time to keep doing it. TransCanada's system unequivocally failed and if this landowner hadn't accidentally discovered the leak there's no guessing how bad it could have become. Considering that this leak is already the worst in the history of South Dakota, the risk of an even more disastrous spill is alarming.

The biggest spill in the history of South Dakota[edit | edit source]

Initially, TransCanada did its best to downplay the disaster and its impact on the environment or communities of the area. The company reported that the leak was only 187 gallons and that “no significant impact to the environment [had] been observed”. These number were already dramatic and made this spill the largest since the Keystone pipeline had opened in 2010. However, it turns out that TransCanada crassly miscalculated and as more and more evidence of the spill was discovered, the Canadian company admitted that the leak was actually 100 times larger and that about 18,600 gallons of crude oil poured onto the neighbouring lands, polluting the soil and the streams. According to Argus Leader, this constitutes the worst spill from a pipeline in the history of South Dakota. And the impacts on the environment and the communities of the area are still not recognized by TransCanada.

TransCanada wrecks the environment and living conditions of communities, but won’t pay the bill.

TransCanada eventually managed to locate the leak and sent a hundred workers to excavate the faulty pipes and fix it. This allowed them to receive federal clearance to reopen the pipeline on the 9th of April. Indeed, every day that passes by without oil flowing through that pipeline means heavy losses for TransCanada, hence the hurry. Needless to say, the company is much less eager to allocate resources to assess the damage that the leak did to the area of Freeman. TransCanada dismissed the damage done to the environment stating that there was no significant impact to the ecosystem or to public safety. However, that seems hard to believe given that the spilled oil spread over a surface as big as a football field ! Local residents are very concerned and would like TransCanada to investigate the matter a bit more thoroughly ! Elizabeth Lone Eagle, an official intervener for the state of South Dakota, pointed out that the leakage had occurred very close to the James and Missouri rivers and that the contamination could spread to several inhabited areas such as Yankton, Vermillion or Sioux City. This shows that the spill might cause extensive damage to the environment and harm the health of inhabitants, namely the Native American people of South Dakota. The worse part is that the cleanup and the health costs that will be caused by this disaster will essentially be paid by taxpayer money, but not by TransCanada, which has exerted incredible effort to evade tax, showing yet again that the image of a “responsible company” is only a varnish under which their greed and total absence of care for the environment is obvious. As it happens, most American states on the keystone route agreed to give TransCanada obscene tax rebates. Kansas granted the company a 10 year tax exemption and South Dakota gave it $14 million in tax cuts. So basically, TransCanada has consistently avoided paying taxes, keeping to itself the indecent profits it was making of the oil business, and at the same time, its mismanagement of the pipelines are creating social costs that the taxpayers will have to cover.

A symbol of the dangers of fossil fuels[edit | edit source]

This spill is the symbol of the many dangers of fossil fuels for the environment and the people. When they are drilled, it leads to horrible pollution and destruction of precious ecosystems like the boreal forests of Alberta, the starting point of the Keystone pipeline. When they are burned as fuel, they lead to massive CO² emissions which are making our world atmosphere hotter and hotter and causing a potentially cataclysmic greenhouse effect that could threaten the very survival of mankind. And in between … they are a threat again because transporting fossil fuels is dangerous no matter how you do it, no matter how evolved the technologies that are used. As Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, analysed it, the spill is “a stark reminder that it’s not a question if a pipeline will malfunction, but rather a question of when.” The spill has spurred the opponent to the Keystone XL extension of the pipeline to intensify their fight. This new section would create a second route crossing South Dakota and Nebraska to link Alberta to Kansas more directly. For example Paul Seamans, a South Dakotan rancher, explains that this last spill is proof that pipeline just aren't safe and that the Keystone XL section must not be allowed to be built : “To me, the spill is good news,” he said. “I’m happy it happened. It shows the dangers of spills from even new pipelines. This spill was less than thirty miles from where the Keystone 1 is bored underneath the Missouri River. We should all consider ourselves fortunate that it didn’t happen there.”

A big item in the 2016 presidential race[edit | edit source]

The issue of Keystone XL is a big issue in the presidential race and the different candidates have had to make up their mind on this project that the Obama administration has blocked. Bernie Sanders has reaffirmed his strong opposition to fossil fuels : “This past week, an existing leg of the TransCanada Keystone pipeline leaked almost 17,000 gallons of tar sands oil, threatening to destroy tribal lands in Freeman, South Dakota. The instability of these pipelines pose serious threats to Native American land, our lakes and rivers, and the health of all South Dakotans. These are just some of the many reasons why I have, from Day One, fought against the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Alberta Clipper and opposed fracked oil pipelines throughout the United States.” Bernie Sanders has also forced Hillary Clinton to change her mind and oppose this project that she had promoted for so long. However, the Republican candidates remain steadfast champions of everything related to fossil fuels and present the pipeline as a no-brainer. For instance Ted Cruz shamelessly repeats the lies of TransCanada on the safety of the Keystone XL project : “If you’re a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist, you should love the Keystone [XL] pipeline.” Indeed, the candidates of the GOP primaries are appearing more and more as fossil fuel big money billboards, but then again, when you look at the people who fund their campaigns, it kind of makes sense.

Even though the spill in South Dakota seems to have stopped, the oil that has escaped has caused a considerable pollution to the Freeman area soil and water. This is solid evidence that there are no safe pipelines, that the only safe place to store fossil fuels is in the ground, where they should be left undisturbed. And citizens need to speak up on this issue to prevent fossil fuel corporations from forcing this project through, when all we should be doing is investing in cleaner, more renewable source of energy.