Matter of perspective

Fossil fuel pipelineAs I sit watching the water flow downhill, the news is reporting Standing Rock Sioux Americans confronting police in an effort to block a 1,170-mile, $4 billion pipeline being built across land the tribes-people consider sacred, and across a river that is a water source for several million people.

President Obama said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – responsible for at least one of the pipeline’s required permits – is looking at a way to reroute the pipeline, but he has to know the company will fight that, citing the cost of the pipe it already has rushed to lay as it tries to outrun any potentially successful efforts to change the already expensive project..

And rush, the company has. As I followed early reports that made it out from credible sources (meaning a few journalists rather than spokespeople for one side or the other), one thing has been clear – the pipeline company is in a hurry to get the pipeline across the river, probably to better its argument about the high cost of putting it someplace else.

Perspective is everything. A leak is when my car drips oil in the driveway. It doesn’t really make a puddle; just a shiny wet spot. When a pipeline broke in September, it “leaked” a reported 225,000 gallons (some later reports said 336,000 gallons) of gasoline into what amounts to a swamp south of Birmingham, Ala.

The pipeline owner, Colonial Pipeline, was happy to issue reports that although the fumes were too hazardous for humans to work in the area, the escaped gasoline was fortuitously contained in a pair of retention ponds originally built for a now abandoned mine. The spill was near, but not in a tributary of the Cahaba River.

Alabama Gov. Robert Benchley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal each declared a state of emergency – not because the ground and water were grossly polluted, but because the broken pipe would cause a gas shortage. Prices were expected to rise significantly as far north as Virginia as gas stations ran out of gas, and gasoline truck drivers were allowed to drive more hours. Drivers experienced some price increases, and long lines at those gas stations that had not run out, but otherwise, all was well.

Until Monday, when a worker driving a trackhoe struck the pipe about five miles from the September spill site, causing a new problem –  an explosion that killed at least one worker and injured several others. Word from the area came that bulldozer operators at the scene were able to build earthen berms to contain gas escaping from the exploded pipe.

Meanwhile, in northern Pennsylvania, heavy mid-October rain flooded a creek near Williamsport. The water tore out a bridge Friday morning, and the bridge busted an eight-inch pipe, dumping 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Creek, where it flowed to Loyalsock Creek, then into the west branch of the Susquehanna River.

Pipeline owner Sunoco was quick to report the spill did not pose a danger to downstream consumers. After a few days, the state Department of Environmental Protection reported finding some gasoline chemical components in the Susquehanna, but assured users there was no problem with their water. One supplier near the breach, Pennsylvania American Water Co., asked its customers to conserve water in case hazardous pollution was found.

Sitting beside a creek in south central Pennsylvania, one might think those three far-away spills of little consequence. After all, we have plenty of clean water flowing from our kitchen faucets.

Or one might get the idea this stuff is dangerous, that 50-year-old pipelines are breaking with increasing frequency, while water supplies come under increasing pressure from climate change and population growth.

We will pay, either for new pipes to carry old fuel, or new systems to deliver new, cleaner and less hazardous energy sources.

It’s a matter of perspective.

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