Pipeline Spills And The Case Of Standing Rock

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On Saturday, December 4th, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies in North Dakota won a huge victory to protect their water from the potential of an oil spill. That was the day that the Army Corps of Engineers decided to not grant a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to pass through the tribe’s territory and under a nearby river that is Standing Rock’s only fresh water source. The DAPL permit was subject of a months-long battle between Native American protesters and the pipeline’s developer, Energy Transfer Partners LP. While land rights were an issue, this was largely a battle for the right to clean water far into the future.

The fight resumed this year, however.

The Trump administration brought in swift and regressive change to the fate of Standing Rock's fight for clean water. In February of this year, executive action reversed the Army Corps decision. As of now, the pipeline is back in courts with Standing Rock’s lawyers, Earthjustice, requesting motions for review.

Why care about oil, and what about pipelines?

There are around 2.5 million miles of pipelines nationwide carrying oil, gasoline and other fuels through a web that traverses landscapes and crosses many waterways.  Many of those pipelines are also vulnerable to breaks and spill: they may be aging, sit on unstable ground, or are susceptible to corrosion that can eat through the pipes themselves.

There have indeed been many spills over recent years, raising concerns from environmental advocates and others. Based on data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) there were 326 “significant spills” in 2015 alone – or almost 1 per day.  (For those who are interested, a full map of the 10,000-plus significant spills from 1986-2016 is available here).

When a spill does happen, the oil that is released can be damaging for nearby environments and – if a spill goes in a waterway – any areas downstream.  Most media looking at oil spills covers the effect on wildlife (such as images of oil-covered  sea otters and birds after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010).

However, oil and other liquids contain many toxic chemicals and carcinogens that can all be extremely dangerous for public health.

Benzene, for example, can have long-term effects including leukemia and other cancers. The entire concoction of chemicals in oil is so harmful that if any crude oil spills into a city’s drinking supply, the whole water supply has to be cut off to prevent residents from ingesting any toxic substances.

The risk of pipeline spills have galvanized growing concern and spurred resistance to the construction of pipelines the first place. Communities on the front lines have been starting to fight back, as we see in Standing Rock.

Remembering Canada’s Spill

Past pipeline spills shine a light on the danger that leaked oil can present to drinking water. One recent disaster in Canada provides a perfect example of a spill straight into a drinking water source. This has also served as proof for anti-pipeline advocates that real dangers exist to their water and lives. Here is the story:

In late July 2016, a pipeline carrying crude oil burst open and leaked an estimated 66,000 gallons of crude oil into the North Saskatchewan River, which provides the drinking water for several Canadian cities downstream. At least two cities – North Battleford and Prince Albert – were forced to shut off their water intake and both moved to back up water supplies, Including emergency water towers.

The Prince Albert water tower held enough to last for 48 hours as officials built an emergency 18-mile water pipeline to the South Saskatchewan River, which eventually saved the drinking water of the town’s 35,000 residents.

The spill took months to clean up and still has lasting environmental damage. 

That's the norm for pipeline spills. Reversing environmental and health damage is harder than preventing it.

Tar Sands, Dakota Access and Standing Rock

The story from Standing Rock starts with a radical transformation in how oil is being produced in Canada and US. There has been rapid expansion of “tar sands” operations in the Dakotas, certain parts of Canada and other states along the border. The process takes tar sands - an almost muddy Mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a “Black viscous oil” - and smooths it down into a more liquid form to be sent to refineries and turned into oil products including gasoline, chemicals and plastics.

Most of the refineries used by tar sands companies are located in Western Canada and the US Gulf Coast, so tar sands operations need a way to transport that oil over thousands of miles. The only main options are freight trains and pipeline – and oil companies are locking down on the pipelines in a big way.

One of those pipelines, already under construction, is the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). If completed, DAPL will carry crude from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast by traversing landscapes and crossing rivers. One of those waterways is the Missouri River which passes by Bismarck, North Dakota – and right by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s territory. The Missouri is also the Sioux tribe’s sole source of fresh drinking water, making it a precious resource to their livelihoods.

DAPL was originally slated to pass under the Missouri up river from Bismarck, but that route was redirected out of concerns that a spill could affect the water source for the city’s 162,000 residents. The Army Corps of Engineers (which permits and approves pipeline routes) and Energy Transfer Partners (the operator of the proposed pipeline) then chose a different route through the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s territory.

The proposal raised massive objection from Standing Rock and its allies. DAPL’s construction was viewed as a clear affront to tribal sovereignty as it would pass right over treaty land without permission; the construction itself would destroy sacred burial grounds; and any spill into the Missouri would endanger the drinking water of 4,000 Native Americans. It was also an egregious case of environmental injustice: government and pipeline operators were concerned enough about Bismarck’s residents, so they rerouted the pipeline. When it came to Native American tribal lands and livelihoods, Energy Transfer Partners and local governments have ruthlessly pursued their plans to build.

The tribes have been treated by these interests as disposable in the name of the fossil fuel industry. 

Fighting back, and being attacked

In August 2016, Standing Rock leaders and other self-described “Water Protectors” began protesting the pipeline in order to protect their land and water rights.

The Water Protectors called throughout their struggle: “water is life.”

The White House stepped in to temporarily halt the construction on September 11 as it reviewed plans – however, the pipeline company continued moving forward and government actors did nothing to actively halt the construction. Energy Transfer Partners was especially aggressive in how it tried to stop the protests, as well.

At one point in early September, unlicensed ETP security guards released attack dogs on the Water Protectors (journalist Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! even caught video of those dogs with bloodied snouts) and it would only escalate from there. The crackdown also included police and other government entities: on October 11 the South Dakota Governor called for out-of-state deputies to help suppress protests, and the response became increasingly militarized. Riot police and military vehicles arrived through the following weeks, even raiding a camp at one point – something very out of proportion for peaceful protesters organizing for clean water.

As news of the struggle spread, the Standing Rock tribe received more and more support from allies across the United States. Many allies traveled to a makeshift camp directly in the way of the pipeline’s route in an effort to block its continued construction. The crackdown expanded as well: in response, riot police at one point even released teargas and rubber bullets on nighttime protesters, injuring several and leaving one in the hospital with severe injuries.

The struggle at Standing Rock, though, continued spreading over social media and increasingly through news outlets - and public pressure grew and kept growing. Calls for environmental justice and solidarity with #NoDAPL spread nationally.

Energy Transfer Partners was also facing a danger of the ongoing protests: if the pipeline wasn’t completed by the end of the year, its contract with oil producers would have been compromised and it would have to renegotiate (or abandon the project entirely, in the middle of its construction). With pressure on both sides and a severe public profile, the Army Corps of Engineers decided on December 4 to deny the permit for the pipeline. For a time, the Standing Rock tribe’s water seemed safe.

Regressive Action: White House Reversals in 2017

The Trump administration swiftly acted to reverse much of the work fought for by Standing Rock and supporters. On February 8th, the executive office reversed the Army Corps decision, thus opening up way for Dakota Access, LLC to lay pipe under the river.  Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the Standing Rock tribes, filed a “motion for summary of the judgment”, which brings forward legal questions within a case that are undetermined. At present, the appeals and stalling of the decision remain in court.

In a conversation about the case and its history, environmental lawyer Jan Hasselman argues that the injustices that fueled #NoDAPL are part and parcel of the American tradition:

There is a time-honored tradition in America of putting the risks and the pollution of industry and toxic sites on the people who have the least political power—primarily low-income people and people of color. The concept is environmental justice. And I've never seen a balder case of environmental justice concerns than this one.

Water is Life

Pipeline spills have been a growing problem in the United States and will continue as our infrastructure gets older. Those spills can endanger waterways nearby and far downriver, even affecting drinking water in the process. The struggle at Standing Rock for environmental justice is not complete, and it will certainly not be the last.

Continue, with us at SimpleWater, to Stand with Standing Rock.


SimpleWater: We Test, Therefore We Know.

A note from the caring folks at SimpleWater — We are a water testing, analysis and health data company intent on providing the best water testing, analysis and reporting service ever created. 

We serve homes, families and businesses asking: “what’s in my water, what does it mean, and how do I ensure the safety of what I’m drinking?”

SimpleWater’s national team of certified laboratory scientists, engineers, health experts and designers provide each customer with a personalized Tap Score Water Quality ReportSimpleWater’s Tap Score is the Nation’s First Smart Water Testing Service for affordable and informative contaminant screening and personalized treatment recommendations.

Call Anytime :: 888 34 MY WATER (+1-888-346-9928)

Find Out What’s In Your Water at MyTapScore.Com

The Coal Ash Map

Coal Ash Map By SimpleWater, Inc — https://mytapscore.com/pages/the-coal-ash-map

Coal Ash Map By SimpleWater, Inc — https://mytapscore.com/pages/the-coal-ash-map

The SimpleWater Coal Ash Map V.1

 

We created The Coal Ash Map to highlight the health risks posed by some of the most dangerous contaminants found in US waters: Arsenic, Beryllium, Boron, Cadmium, Chromium-6, Cobalt, Lead, Mercury, Nickel, Selenium, Thallium, and Uranium. The map visualizes where the United States Government is testing for, detecting, not detecting, and sometimes not even testing for these potential threats.

While each contaminant can come from a variety of industrial activities, and even from natural underground rock formations, what they all have in common is that they are all commonly found in coal ash, the largest solid waste stream produced by the US coal industry.

The map shows two things:

  1. The location of yellow, orange, red, and purple points represents sites where the contaminants have been tested for in the past decade. Their color represents SimpleWater’s evaluation of the health risk posed by the concentrations measured.
  2. The locations of coal ash disposal ponds and landfills are shown as a bright green points on the map. By clicking on one, you can see:
  • The name of the facility
  • Whether it is lined (i.e. less likely to leak into groundwater)
  • Distance to the nearest surface water body

You can find more information about our methods in the Appendix below.

Why Coal Ash?

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of burning coal. It can take the form of a fine powder, wet slurry or coarse slag and it contains many of the world’s most harmful toxic metals. Because coal is burned for about 30% of US electricity production, it accounts for the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States.

The EPA has national rules for the management and disposal of coal ash due to the potentially harmful chemicals found within it. These rules, however, are highly controversial. In 2010, after several high-profile spills in Kingston, TN and Eden, NC many environmentalists and health experts fought to declare coal ash as a Hazardous Waste. With as much as $10B in annual coal ash recycling revenues potentially on the line, industry lobbyists fought back. After much deliberation on a complex issue, the EPA maintained coal ash as a Non-Hazardous Waste.

As with many toxic waste streams from industrial activity, coal ash doesn’t simply disappear. Trucks and trains carry approximately 130 tons of coal ash every year to more than 1,100 dump sites nationwide. Some States even allow the recycling of coal ash into other products like top soil. Contaminants in coal the ash have a way of sticking around, (scientists often say, “persisting”) and can readily leak into the environment if the holding infrastructure deteriorates. If things go wrong, these potentially harmful coal ash contaminants can find their way into our bodies through drinking water.

According to the US EPA draft report, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes people living within 1 mile of unlined coal ash ponds experience a 1 in 50 additional cancer risk from potential arsenic and cadmium exposure.

What makes this map special?

At SimpleWater, we care about the relationship between toxic contaminants and our water. With our access to one of the largest water testing datasets available and cutting edge geospatial technologies, we are able to paint this vivid picture for you.

One of the biggest challenges of showing different contaminants together on a single map is that they become dangerous to humans at different concentrations. Because of this, a useful map should not simply show the amount measured for each contaminant. We took this visualization a step further with our extensive contaminant health data, and made the map about human health impact, rather than just concentrations.

The map is for those who care about what may be in their groundwater well. It’s also for those who have a more general interest in the environmental impact of one of the dirtiest human activities. Establishing causality between the contaminants and the disposal sites requires intensive research and is beyond the scope of this version of the map.

One thing we can see is how many regions with a high number of disposal facilities have not engaged in substantial water testing for the contaminants found in coal ash. The regions with few points represent what we don’t know. States like California, with rigorous environmental testing programs, will appear brighter on the map due to the high number of tests performed.

See anything interesting or strange? Curious about how you can support our ongoing research? Send us your thoughts at info@simplewater.us.

How to Read It

What do the points mean?

Each of the almost 34,000 points represents an aggregate of all water quality tests performed in its vicinity.This means two sampling locations very near to each other are displayed as one. Moreover, we only show the most recent data available for each contaminant, so if a location has results for arsenic in 2008 reading 10 PPB and in 2015 reading 3 PPB we only show the 3 PPB result.

When you click on a location, you see the most recent test result for each of the tracked contaminants. You also see if they were tested for, and not detected. Each detection is shown as:

[ Contaminant Name ] : [ Detection Result ] / [ SimpleWater Health Recommendation ] [ Unit ] — [ Approximate Health Risk Evaluation ]

simplewater coal ash map details

 

What is the SimpleWater Health Recommendation?

Simply put, SWR is the most stringent of all Federal and State regulations and Public Health Goals set for a given contaminant. When official regulations are not available, as with new and emerging contaminants, we use our own research and other authoritative guidelines to make a safe recommendation. For more details on how we calculate health risk scores, contact us at info@simplewater.us.

Health Risk Evaluation Definitions:

  • BELOW DANGEROUS LEVELS: Contaminant concentration does not violate the SimpleWater Health Recommendation (SWR).
  • SLIGHTLY ELEVATED: Contaminant concentration is above SWR but within the range of sampling error.
  • ELEVATED: Contaminant concentration is above SWR and could pose a small health risk with prolonged exposure.
  • MODERATE: Contaminant concentration is significantly above SWR and could pose health risks to individuals drinking this water untreated for a prolonged period of time.
  • HIGH: In the case of carcinogenic contaminants, “HIGH” indicates a concentration that exceeds a 1 in 10,000 additional lifetime risk of death due to cancer from having that contaminant in your daily drinking water. For harmful but non-carcinogenic effects, “HIGH” represents SimpleWater’s best estimate for an equivalent non-cancer threat to the human body. Water with any contaminant present at this level should not be consumed without treating it specifically for the underlying contaminant.
  • VERY HIGH: Prolonged exposure to the contaminant could represent as much as a 1 in 1,000 risk of cancer or an equivalent threat to the human body.
  • SEVERE: 10x the ‘VERY HIGH’ Concentration.
  • VERY SEVERE: 100x the ‘VERY HIGH’ Concentration.
  • EXTREME: 1,000x the ‘VERY HIGH’ Concentration.
  • VERY EXTREME: 10,000x the ‘VERY HIGH’ Concentration.

Each of these risk levels was given a numerical score starting at 1 for Slightly Elevated and increasing by a factor of 10 at each stage. For example, 10 for Elevated, 100 for Moderate, and 1,000 for High. We determined the color of each point on the map by adding the scores for all the contaminants present at a given location.

Due to the inherent complexity of combining health risks from multiple contaminants, the colors and descriptions on the legend should be used as a general guide. The pop-up that appears when clicking on a point shows the individual contaminant results along with our Health Risk Evaluation.

A larger point indicates locations where more contaminants were tested for and discovered at potentially harmful levels. A smaller point indicates a location with a lesser variety of dangerous test results.

For mobile users, who might not see the legend on the map, it is also available below. A Low color corresponds to a penalty at or under 1,000; Moderatecorresponds to 1,001–10,000; High to 10,001–100,000; Severe to 100,001–1,000,000; Most Severe to 1,000,001 and above.

coal ash map legend simplewater

About non-detections:

Just because there are no points in an area, does not necessarily mean the water there is safe. It means that we found no data for tests performed recently near that location. In order to show a contaminant as tested and not detected, we only go back 5 years. In other words, if something was tested 7 years ago, and no detection was made, we consider it untested.

A point with a light yellow color means there are no serious violations for this specific set of 12 contaminants but says nothing about whether tests have been conducted. The only way to know is to click on a point and view the details. Even when all or many of the coal ash contaminants have been tested for and not found, there could be other dangerous contaminants on site. For example, nitrates and PCB’s are not tracked on this map.

We encourage you to use the map search tool (magnifying glass in lower left) to find your community and discover what kind of readings or gaps in testing are present. Contact us if you have questions.

Should I Panic?

In a word, no.

If you see a point with a severe risk assessment near your home, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are drinking dangerous water. If your drinking water comes from a Public Water System, the source for that water may be far away.

The only way to be sure about your water is to test it regularly, especially if you are drinking from a private well in a high risk area or getting your water from a Public Water System that serves under 10,000 people.

SimpleWater

SimpleWater is a social enterprise founded at the University of California, Berkeley with the mission of delivering the best water quality testing service imaginable. This means drawing the connection between water quality analysis and personal health factors in a way never done before. Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, and continuous improvement to our testing, analysis, and reporting technologies is vital for enabling this.

We created the most informative water test ever conceived and called it Tap Score. The Tap Score water quality report includes detailed information about everything measured in your water, as well as personalized treatment product recommendations based on your contaminant profile and usage needs. We can help you determine what you should test for based on your water source and location. Visit http://mytapscore.com for more information about Tap Score and http://simplewater.us for more information about SimpleWater, Inc.

Appendix A: Methodology Summary

Legal Disclaimer: SimpleWater makes no claims or guarantees about the accuracy or completeness of the data in this map or in the informational pop-up windows.

Contaminant and Coal Ash Data

Data for the Contaminant Results was provided by the US EPA and represents the combined set of results from dozens of Federal and State agencies. Data for the coal ash sites was acquired and published by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In order to make the Contaminant Results Data usable for this map, it was cleaned in the following ways:

  • We removed sampling locations that do not properly represent environmental water. In other words, we made sure the points in the map represent wells, springs, streams, or sometimes waste effluent that is being released into the environment. We avoided contained sites that represent closed systems and do not interact with their environment.
  • We included only results where the sample was collected in the last 10 years as of 1-Feb-2017. We’ve made the assumption that the dates attached to the tests can be trusted, even though a small fraction of the reported dates may be inaccurate.
  • We included only samples of water, not solids found in sediment, etc.
  • We used only test results that can be converted to Parts Per Billion for this map. This means we ignored tests for radioactivity (pCi/L), for example.
  • We did not add any sort of penalty to the points for not testing the full set of contaminants, hence the important note about non-detections above.
  • As mentioned above, testing locations very near to each other were consolidated.
  • We ignored results with bad geocoding (e.g. in Cleveland but appearing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean) to the extent possible. We know a few results have been recorded in incorrect locations and will try to address this once we have the resources.
  • While the health data represents intensive research by our team it is actively being improved by a team of experts from leading universities. This is a work in progress and will evolve as the scientific community’s knowledge about the health effects of these contaminants grows.

Health Data

Data used for the analysis of contaminant health risks is sourced from a variety of professional health institutions and publicly available resources. In particular, SimpleWater aggregates toxicological and epidemiological studies, then tracks the most concerning water-borne chemical contaminants. Contaminants are chosen if they fit any of the following rules:

  1. Regulated under the US Federal Safe Drinking Water Act
  2. Regulated under State laws
  3. Listed as Emerging Contaminants by US EPA
  4. Considered to be important to SimpleWater Customers

Toxicological and epidemiological reports prepared by health authorities and research institutions are then compiled for each contaminant. We categorize the key findings and structure the quantifiable health data according to the following analysis.

Exposure Pathway

  • Specific To Drinking Water?
  • Specific To Oral Route?

Quality of Scientific Rigor

  • Testing Sample Size
  • Quality Of Reporting Detail and Analysis
  • Ability to Generalize Findings
  • Subject Studied (Human, Ferret, Rat…?)
  • Sample Demographics
  • Hazardous Potential
  • Carcinogenicity data

Data pertaining to health effects on

  • Heart and Blood
  • Central Nervous System
  • Kidneys
  • GI
  • Liver
  • Reproductive System
  • Respiratory System
  • Thyroid and Adrenal Glands
  • Endocrine System

Special Thanks

None of this would be possible without the great efforts put in by the individuals in some of these organizations:

Carto — For generously providing the visualization platform for the data.
http://www.carto.com

The US Environmental Protection Agency
http://www.epa.gov

Sierra Club
http://sierraclub.org

California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment - OEHHA
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessmentoehha.ca.gov

UC Berkeley and California Magazine
Well in Control: Berkeley Startup Helps People Find Out What They’re Drinking
Two factors that contributed to the poisoning of tens of thousands of Washington, D.C., residents through their…alumni.berkeley.edu

The J.M. Kaplan Foundation
J.M. Kaplan Fund Names Innovation Prize Finalists
J.M. Kaplan Fund Names Innovation Prize Finalists The selection process began nine months ago with the submission of 1…philanthropynewyork.org

Physicians For Social Responsibility
www.psr.org/environment-and-health/code-black/coal-ash-toxic-and-leaking.html

Coal Ash Reading Suggestions

Earth Justice

Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives
Coal Ash is a Hazardous Waste. Coal ash, the toxic remains of coal burning in power plants, is full of chemicals that…earthjustice.org

Sierra Club

Coal Ash Waste | Beyond Coal
Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, atoxic by-product of burning coal…content.sierraclub.org

Bitter Southerner

Say Hello to The Bitter Southerner
Amid mounting concern about clean drinking water, rural Southern communities are getting squeezed: They can take much…bittersoutherner.com

The Atlantic

The Violent Remaking of Appalachia
When mining a century’s worth of energy means ruining a landscape for millions of years.www.theatlantic.com

Mother Jones

New report: Poor Americans of color drink filthy water and breathe poisonous air all the damn time
The EPA is “failing” poor communities of color, says the US Commission on Civil Rights.www.motherjones.com

EPA Coal Combustion Wastes Risk Assessment

Journalists

We want to provide you with rich data concerning environmental health, water quality and contamination risks. Our analysis and mapping technology can support local, regional and national scale investigations. If you have particular needs or general questions about water contamination then please reach out to us. We want to support you and your work. Email info@simplewater.us to make an inquiry.

“Go to where the silence is and say something”



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