Reflections, Ruminations & Refractions
On Jan. 17, a pipeline upriver from Glendive broke, spilling, as of a Jan. 27 estimate approximately 30,000 gallons of petroleum from the Bakken oil fields into the Yellowstone River. The city’s water treatment plant was polluted, and trucks began hauling bottled water to residents but not to businesses (including restaurants). By Jan. 20 the leak had been found and the the cleanup is well underway but this incident serves as a cogent reminder.
Pipelines are the cheapest and safest way to send petroleum products to distant points. But pipelines are man-made and they, like any human construction can (and usually do) break. Now the question on most people’s minds is “If Congress overrides President Obama’s expected veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, when the pipeline leaks how big a disaster will result?
According to the story in the Jan. 22 Billings Gazette, the route of the Keystone pipeline will cross the Yellowstone roughly 20 miles above the present pipeline break [now called the Poplar Hill spill] near Glendive. Again quoting the Gazette, Senator Jon Tester, noting that the pipe that broke was decades old, said “… we need to look at some of these pipelines that have been in the ground for half a century and are they still doing a good job?“
We need to understand that there is no such thing as a perfect pipeline, no more than there is a perfect washing machine or spaceship. But this pipeline has a special problem: the Canadian tar sands oil it will carry to Gulf of Mexico refineries is highly corrosive and regardless of promises by well meaning engineers, the Keystone pipeline will likely pose more of a danger in Montana than expected.
I’m familiar with the claims about the hundreds of jobs the pipeline will create. I also understand the counter arguments: the construction jobs will be temporary and the long-term financial benefits will go elsewhere.
Not only that, but the construction will only add to the problems already experienced in the area: man-camps and their resultant problems of drugs, prostitution, and the strain on local community resources. There will be a few longer lasting maintenance and administrative jobs, but little increase in tax dollars. So any long-term economic boost is unlikely to materialize.
Is it worth it?
Why should Montana be helping the economy of Canada and oil companies located elsewhere? Why should we endanger Montana’s water and land resources for the sake of only limited (and inadequate) short-term gains? These questions beg for answers and the responses vary with the politics of politicians as well as voters. Many folk, including me, don’t trust the answers provided by the same large corporations which stand to gain millions of dollars (many of which end up in eastern banks) by backing the Keystone.
Of course this isn’t the first recent pipeline leak in Montana. Less than four years ago, in 2011, an Exxon Mobile pipeline broke and spilled 69,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River upstream from Laurel.
While Exxon cleaned up the mess and paid a hefty fine, the cleanup took about a month and although Laurel residents didn’t have to drink bottled water like those of Glendive, the Billings water plant went on alert and sucked out oil that would otherwise have ended up in that city’s drinking water.
Wake up, friends, and hopefully enjoy the smell of fresh-brewed morning coffee instead of freshly spilled petroleum fumes like the folks in Glendive.
Dave Grimland is a Columbus resident and former U.S. diplomat, having served as a press spokesman, cultural officer and public affairs officer in Athens, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Bangladesh. He was also the deputy director in New Delhi, India. His career with the American diplomatic service spanned about 25 years.