A The crude oil spill from a broken pipeline has sparked a cleanup in and along a Madison County waterway for more than a week, with thousands of barrels of oil spilling next to a river tributary Mississippi.
A cause of the spill is still under investigation. Recent history, however, shows that pipeline incidents in Missouri and Illinois are most often caused by the failure of their own materials and equipment, according to government records.
Hundreds of these problems have cropped up over the past two decades amid the network of pipelines that criss-cross the St. Louis area.
“These can be avoided, within reason,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of a company called Accufacts Inc., and a specialist in pipeline investigations, auditing, risk management and other related matters.
In nearly 50 years of investigative work, he has “never seen failure by actual accident”, he said. Many pipeline spills happen, he said, because of something wrong with their operation, maintenance or even the quality of the pipe.
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More than 163,000 gallons of oil leaked in the Edwardsville spill, officials said, the equivalent of about 3,900 barrels.
“This is a very significant spill,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit organization focused on pipeline safety issues. “It’s more than what you usually see.”
In fact, this month’s spill, first reported on March 11 and already in the state attorney general’s sights, is among the largest in Missouri and Illinois, after only nine others in over the past 20 years.
As of early last week – days after the oil spill was first reported to local authorities – the smell of asphalt still filled the air near Illinois Route 143 and Old Road. Alton-Edwardsville. Dozens of workers were on site, maneuvering bulldozers and excavators to scoop dirt into trucks along Cahokia Creek. An oily sheen was still visible on the surface of the water.
Roads in the area have been closed, as has a bike path that crosses the creek.
Floating booms crossed the creek at the spill site. Even so, oil glistened farther downstream. The effects were noticeable about a mile away, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.
More personnel and lines of dams were stationed miles away where the waterway—at that time called the Cahokia Floodway—meets the Mississippi River, almost exactly at its confluence with the Missouri River. It is just upstream from a municipal drinking water intake in Saint-Louis.
“Our indications are that no oil has reached the Mississippi,” said Jacob Hassan, an onsite coordinator for EPA Region 5.
State and regional environmental officials were taking surface water and groundwater samples, to monitor changes from the spill, including checking drinking water wells for local homes. . Air quality monitoring was also carried out in nearby residential areas.
Some wild animals were affected. A Wednesday update listed seven ducks, three turtles, two beavers, an owl, a frog, a hawk and a snake as having been treated. In the meantime, eight ducks, a muskrat, a heron and a frog had been found dead.
Officials said sound deterrents were used to help prevent animals from coming to the area affected by the spill.
Caram said that while much of the oil from the spill has been recovered, the scale of the incident has raised concerns.
“With a spill of this size, there’s definitely an issue with the health of the whole stream and (roughly) seeping into groundwater,” he said.
Those concerns prompted Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to sue the pipeline operator on Friday, saying the spill had “created a substantial danger to the environment and public health.”
The lawsuit says the pipeline was carrying highly viscous heavy crude oil at the time of the release and orders the pipeline operator to take action to ensure a “final and permanent abatement of substantial danger to the environment and public health.” It also calls for civil penalties for environmental violations.
The ruptured pipeline is owned by Marathon Petroleum Corp., the owners of Ohio-based gas station chains and the nation’s largest refining system. The 22-inch-wide line runs from Wood River to Patoka in central Illinois, Marathon said. (Patoka holds a prominent place in the energy world as the eastern terminus of the Keystone Pipeline System. This system follows the same route as the broken Marathon Line, using the same easement, Caram said.)
The Edwardsville accident helps underscore that the St. Louis area is full of pipelines beneath our feet. For example, St. Charles and Madison counties are intertwined with pipelines leading to an oil refinery in the Metro East and a concentration of oil terminals along the Mississippi River.
Experts say pipelines are the safest way to transport substances like oil. But the region’s vast network of pipelines also has a history of spills.
Often they are relatively minor, concentrated around oil refineries and terminals – such as those in Wood River and other industrial areas of the Eastern Metro, or in centers like Patoka.
But of the 432 incidents combined in Missouri and Illinois since 2020, 72 have resulted in spills of 1,000 gallons or more. And 36 of those events exceeded 10,000 gallons in leaks, while 13 — not including the recent Edwardsville spill — exceeded 100,000 gallons.
The accidents come from a list of leading pipeline operators and energy companies. Marathon ranks as the pipeline owner with the most spills in both states over a 20-year period.
Marathon was involved in 49 of 432 incidents, according to the Liquid Oil Spill Database. The second company with the most spills was Explorer, followed by BP, then Buckeye Partners and Enbridge.
Most of Missouri and Illinois’ spills – 53% – were attributed to the pipes themselves, with hardware or welding or equipment failures being the leading causes of pipeline incidents, the data shows. from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the United States Department of Transportation. Corrosion was the second most common cause, triggering 15% of spills.
“It’s surprising to see a spill of this size coming from Marathon,” Caram said, discussing the Edwardsville incident. “They have a very good reputation for taking good care of their pipelines.”
Past incidents have occurred near the current cleanup site. Along the same pipeline route and just a few miles west, a Marathon line spilled more than 136,000 gallons of crude oil in 2002, of which only about 15% was recovered.
Most recently, in February 2019, approximately 200,000 gallons of oil spilled from storage tanks in Granite City, some contaminating the city’s sewer system and nearby soil.
The very next day, a separate oil leak in St. Charles County shut down the Keystone pipeline, after spilling 1,800 gallons of crude near the Missouri River.
In 2010, TransCanada, the operator of the Keystone pipeline, specifically identified St. Charles County as the “worst-case scenario” location for a spill. That year, the company had to dig up part of the pipeline, after government tests revealed parts of the project could have been built with faulty steel.
Excavation in the northwest part of Missouri found nine anomalies in the pipeline. The Post-Dispatch reported that year that more of the line may have had to be dug if government pipe strength standards had not been relaxed in 2009.
Caram said pipeline operators can combat threats such as corrosion by running electrical current through the lines. Meanwhile, inspection tools can be sent inside the lines to check and identify anomalies, such as dents or places where the thickness of the pipe varies.
Looking ahead, experts like him are curious to learn more about the recent Edwardsville spill, Marathon’s leak inspection and detection practices, and whether the causes ultimately point to broader risks in the system. of pipelines, or if the risks were unique to that unique location.
“Is there a risk to the rest of the system? Karam asked. “The public should pay attention to the cause of the failure.”
Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.