While 900 people continue working to clean up the ExxonMobil crude oil spill on the Yellowstone River, the federal government has issued a warning to all owners and operators of pipelines in other high-water areas.
Although the cause of the 42,000-gallon Silvertip Pipeline spill July 1 still has not been determined, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration published the alert Wednesday (July 27) in the Federal Register, citing the Yellowstone spill.
Pipeline Safety: Potential for Damage to Pipeline Facilities Caused by Flooding warns owners and operators of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines of “the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by severe flooding.”
ExxonMobil Pipeline Company
|Cleanup crews collect oil-tainted vegetation for disposal. Nearly 900 people are involved in the cleanup effort.|
The advisory includes “actions that operators should consider taking to ensure the integrity of pipelines in case of flooding.”
“Severe flooding is the kind of unusual operating condition that can adversely affect the safe operation of a pipeline and require corrective action” under federal Pipeline Safety Regulations, the advisory warns.
It also notes that in addition to the Yellowstone spill, major flooding along the San Jacinto River near Houston in 1994 caused eight pipeline failures and compromised the integrity of several other pipelines.
Severe flooding is among the conditions that can also trigger federal or state reporting requirements, the advisory notes.
Regulations require operators to have a procedure for continuing surveillance of their facilities and to repair or replace any segment found to be in unsatisfactory condition, according to the advisory. If the segment cannot be immediately repaired or replace, the operator must reduce the maximum allowable operating pressure in the pipe.
If any section of pipeline “presents an immediate hazard,” it must be shut down until the condition is corrected.
“Operators need to direct their resources in a manner that will enable them to determine the potential effects of flooding on their pipeline systems,” the agency said. It urged operators to:
• Evaluate the accessibility of pipeline facilities that may be in jeopardy;
• Extend regulator vents and relief stacks above the level of anticipated flooding;
• Coordinate with emergency and spill responders on pipeline location and condition;
• Coordinate with other pipeline operators in the flood area;
• Deploy personnel so that they will be in position to take emergency action;
• Determine if valves, regulators and other facilities that are normally above ground have become submerged and are in danger of being struck by vessels or debris; and
• Perform frequent patrols, including overflights, and surveys to evaluate conditions and determine the depth of cover over pipelines.
Senators Chide PHMSA, Exxon
Both PHMSA and ExxonMobil have gotten an earful from the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which met July 20 to gather information about the spill.
Subcommittee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) called the hearing to "track down the cause of this spill and learn from it" and to "make sure something like this never happens again."
Gary Pruessing, president of the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, told the panel that "we do not yet know the precise cause of the current breach in the Silvertip Pipeline." Initial speculation has focused on the possibility that the pipeline was not buried deeply enough under the riverbed and was smashed by debris in the current.
Before the spill, ExxonMobil said the pipeline was 12 feet under the river bed. The company now says it was between five and eight feet under the river.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted that PHMSA had issued a number of warnings to the company regarding the pipeline going back to 2003.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that nearly 900 people were continuing to work on cleanup and shoreline assessment on the spill.
In an update, EPA reported that:
• Equipment had been helicoptered into previously inaccessible areas, accelerating cleanup efforts and improving removal of contaminated debris;
• The agency was working with experts in an Agricultural Impact Subcommittee to develop a fact sheet for agricultural questions that will be made available to the public;
• Sampling data results will be made available as quickly as possible, but the lack of final test results “has not impeded our decision making for the cleanup or the speed of our response efforts,” said Steve Merritt, EPA On-Scene Coordinator. “Everyone is working diligently to get this data out to the public as soon as possible.”
EPA also said that its teams had surveyed most of two of the spill area’s three divisions. Those surveys, which were about 78% complete, showed some oil impact—from very light to heavy—on about 60 percent of the shoreline, mostly on the south bank of the river and on islands submerged during flooding.
EPA said it “continues to hold ExxonMobil, the responsible party, accountable for assessment and cleanup.”