Unnatural disasters: Would you rather have an oil spill or an explosion?

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Remember that one? It was the big oil spill off the Alaskan coast that taught us all about the incredible danger to the environment posed by oil. The awful photos of oil-soaked birds and devastated coastline taught us that we needed to exercise the utmost care to safeguard our waters and coastlines so that such a terrible disaster could never happen again.

Until it did. The BP Deepwater explosion in 2010 was far worse than a leaking oil tanker, spewing death and destruction over a wider area. BP is still fighting court battles over the costs it once agreed to pay and now thinks are too high.

What we should have learned from the Exxon Valdez spill is that no amount of money can restore the ecosystem. That lesson was driven home in a series of NPR specials detailing the effects that persist today:

“‘The understanding that lingering oil could have chronic effects on wildlife populations was a new and important finding, and one that we did not anticipate at the time that we started the research,’ Esler says.”

Neither the Exxon Valdez nor the BP Deepwater disaster was sufficient to scare us into safeguarding the planet’s water, wildlife and human communities from toxic oil spills.

On March 22, reports the New York Times, “a ship collision in the Houston Ship Channel caused as many as 170,000 gallons of oil to spill and shut down one of the nation’s busiest seaports.” On March 25, a BP oil refinery in Indiana leaked crude oil into Lake Michigan.

In both Galveston and Indiana, authorities assured reporters that the oil spills were contained and would be quickly cleaned up. Of course, we believe them.

Meanwhile, this report from another part of the country:

[E]nergy giant Enbridge’s pipeline burst, causing oil to flow into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, some 75 miles from where it empties into Lake Michigan. After more than three years and a billion dollars, oil remains in the river.

Enbridge comes closer to home, too. According to a March 5 report in the Bemidji Pioneer:

“Enbridge Energy said Tuesday it plans to build yet another new oil pipeline through Minnesota, on top of two expansion projects already in the works. …

“It was immediately noticed by some environmental groups that the new Line 3 would allow for increased shipment of so-called tar sands crude oil from northern Canada into the U.S. — the same substance proposed to move on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that many U.S. groups have urged President Barack Obama to halt.”

The Enbridge pipeline proposal is smaller than the Keystone XL, and has had proportionately less attention.

For the Enbridge pipeline, public comment is open through April 14 at 4:30 p.m. Comments must include both the PUC Docket Number PL-9/CN-13-153 and the OAH Docket Number 8-2500-30952 in the email subject line to: RouteComments.OAH@state.mn.us. Public hearing schedule here, with final hearing on April 3 in St. Paul. 

Pipelines are not the only problem — ask the survivors of the deadly Lac Megantic oil train explosion that killed 47 people in that Canadian town last July, or the 2300 residents who saw Casselton, North Dakota evacuated in the wake of an oil train explosion in December.

Or maybe ask the federal regulators, who say that the oil companies won’t give them the information about train safety that they need. An AP article in the Star Tribune reported that:

“‘The overall and ongoing lack of cooperation is disappointing, slows progress and certainly raises concerns,’ the [Department of Transportation] said in a statement. ‘We still lack data we requested and that energy stakeholders agreed to produce within 30 days.'”

The article cites four “major” accidents since 2008, when South Dakota’s Bakken oil boom began, and notes that the number of carloads of oil moving by railroad has grown from 9,344 in 2008 to 434,000 in 2013.

In a bitterly ironic twist, pipeline advocates are now pointing to the oil train explosions as a reason for approving more pipelines. Trains can’t be made safe, they say, so pipelines are the way to go. The argument seems to be that spills that slowly poison the land and water and fish and people for decades to come are better than explosions that kill people and destroy towns suddenly.

Sounds like a choice between the devil and the deep (formerly) blue sea.

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One response to “Unnatural disasters: Would you rather have an oil spill or an explosion?

  1. Pingback: Oil trains in the Twin Cities: The fire next time | News Day

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