An explosion in North American fossil fuel extraction has led to a dangerous rise in pipeline spills and oil train derailments
January 15, 2016 — Shipping oil and gas across our country and Canada is a dangerous business, whether it’s by rail, ship, or pipeline. Major accidents might make headlines for a few days or weeks, but after our media attention moves on, the environmental cleanup and community costs remain. So in 2015, we decided to give readers a sense of just how often transporting fossil fuel goes wrong.
We didn’t have to wait long. Not one week into 2015, on January 6, a ruptured pipeline leaked 3 million gallons of brine into two creeks near Williston, North Dakota. It was the largest such spill since the state’s oil boom began 10 years ago, which is saying something: A New York Times report found that more than 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked, or misted into the state’s air, land, and waterways between 2006 and 2014. Less than two weeks later, on January 17 another ruptured pipeline sent 31,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana.
In fact, significant spills bookended the year. As we began clearing our throats to sing “Auld Lang Syne” to 2015, what many are calling the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout was unfolding in California. Since late October, a leak at a natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch has been spewing out thousands of pounds of methane each hour. And officials expect it to keep doing so until well into 2016.
Sadly, there were plenty more incidents in the intervening months. Throughout 2015, we combed the news for reports of spills. Here’s what we found.
January 6: Williston, North Dakota
A ruptured pipeline operated by Summit Midstream leaked three million gallons of brine—a toxic by-product of oil and natural gas drilling—into Blacktail Creek and Little Muddy River, tributaries of the Missouri River. It was the biggest spill of its kind since North Dakota’s fracking boom began nine years ago. Clean up of a 2006 spill of one million gallons of brine near Alexander, North Dakota, is still ongoing. Brine, which is many times saltier than ocean water and can be laced with heavy metals and fracking chemicals, can contaminate soil, poison vegetation, and kill aquatic life.
January 14: Jackson, Mississippi
A section of the Gulf South natural gas pipeline ruptured and exploded. The fire burned for an hour and a half, leaving an acre of scorched forest in its wake. No one was injured, but the blast knocked out the gas supply to 25 nearby homes.
January 17: Glendive, Montana
The Poplar Pipeline running beneath the Yellowstone River ruptured, spilling some 31,000 gallons of crude oil into the water. Glendive residents had to rely on trucked-in bottled water for three days after the town’s drinking water tested positive for benzene (a known carcinogen). It was the river’s second such spill in four years. In July 2011, Exxon Mobil’s Silvertip Pipeline leaked 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone at a site 230 miles south. The most recent spill, however, occurred when the river’s surface was frozen—making the cleanup effort both difficult and dangerous. Bridger Pipeline, Poplar’s owner, and its sister company, Belle Fourche Pipeline, recorded a combined 35 pipeline incidents between 2006 and 2014.
January 23: Tioga, North Dakota
Two weeks after Summit Midstream’s three-million-gallon brine spill in Williston, Hess Bakken Investments reported a brine spill of more than 100,000 gallons. The state said the release affected a nearby stock dam.
January 26: Brooke County, West Virginia
An ethane pipeline exploded, shooting flames hundreds of feet into the air. The section of pipe that ruptured is part of the 1,265-mile Appalachia-to-Texas Express pipeline, which runs from the Marcellus Shale in Washington County, Pennsylvania, to Mont Belvieu, Texas. No one was injured, and as of February 12, Enterprise Products Partners LLP, the pipeline’s owner, is still trying to determine the cause of the break.
February 4: Dubuque, Iowa
An 81-car Canadian Pacific freight train derailed in a remote area north of Dubuque on the banks of the Mississippi River. Eleven cars carrying ethanol fuel hopped the tracks and three caught fire. There were no injuries, but the area around the accident was evacuated as a precaution.
February 14: Gogama, Ontario
An unknown quantity of oil spilled when a 100-car Canadian National Railway train carrying crude from Alberta’s tar-sands region to eastern Canada derailed and caught fire in a remote wooded area. Via Rail cancelled all passenger train service between Toronto and Winnipeg while the crash was cleared. The train and the track it was traveling on had both been inspected earlier that day.
February 16: Boomer, West Virginia
Nineteen cars of a 109-car CSX train carrying millions of pounds of crude oil derailed, sending fireballs and explosions into the air and prompting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency for two counties. Between 200 and 300 people needed to evacuate their homes. Residents temporarily relied on trucked-in bottled water after a treatment plant closed amid worries that oil had leaked into the nearby Kanawha River. The plant reopened the day after the incident, but it instructed its 2,000 customers to boil water before drinking it.
March 1: Peace River, Alberta
A Murphy Oil Company pipeline leaked up to 17,000 barrels of petroleum product into a type of North American bog habitat called muskeg. Initial reports put the spill at 94 barrels, but the company later realized the leak was much, much larger.
March 5: Galena, Illinois
A 105-car BNSF Railway train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed near the Mississippi River. Twenty-one cars came off the tracks, and five caught fire. Residents within a mile radius of the crash site were evacuated. The train had unjacketed cars, which lack an insulated steel shell that provides thermal protection after derailment.
March 7: Gogama, Ontario
A 94-car Canadian National Railway train carrying Alberta crude oil derailed and burst into flames two miles northwest of the town of Gogama. Five of the 38 cars that hopped the tracks went into the Makami River, part of the Mattagami River System. Residents of Gogama and the Mattagami First Nation were advised to stay indoors and avoid drinking the water. Later testing of air and water quality found no problems. The incident was CN’s second oil train derailment in northern Ontario in three days, and the third in less than a month, taking place just 23 miles from the February 14 derailment.
March 9: Houston, Texas
An unknown quantity of toxic chemicals spilled into the Houston Ship Channel after a bulk carrier collided with a Danish tanker carrying 216,000 barrels of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped the leak 90 minutes after the crash. No injuries were reported, but 350 residents of nearby Morgan’s Point were told to shelter-in-place. MTBE is a volatile, flammable liquid that dissolves easily in water, making it notoriously difficult to clean up. Due to its ability to contaminate groundwater quickly when spilled, MTBE use has been banned in the United States since 2005, though it remains popular in other countries.
March 9: Williston, North Dakota
A truck overflow spilled 1,680 gallons of brine, affecting a nearby creek. Early reports said the North Dakota Department of Health was conducting water quality testing and working with the trucking company on a remediation plan.
April 11: Arlington, Texas
Thousands of gallons of fracking fluid spilled out of city storm drains and into the streets. Vantage Energy waited two hours before calling 911, delaying the emergency response—it took experts a full 24 hours to cap the leak. The fracking site was located just 600 feet from a residential area, and 100 homes had to be evacuated. The company was issued a citation for the incident and fined $84,000.
April 17: Fresno, California
A Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline exploded at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office gun range, sending a fireball 100 feet into the air and injuring 14 people, two critically. California State Highway 99 was closed in both directions for three hours while firefighters worked to control the flames. A crew working at the site had accidentally struck and punctured the 12-inch gas line with a front loader. On April 20, a preliminary investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission revealed that no one checked for underground utilities before initiating construction.
May 5: Drumheller, Alberta
An undetermined volume of sweet natural gas and hydrocarbon liquid leaked onto agricultural land during planned maintenance on TransCanada’s Sieu Creek natural gas transmission line. The company shut down the pipeline and began a cleanup operation immediately.
May 6: Heimdal, North Dakota
At least six tanker cars caught fire after a BNSF oil train derailed. No injuries were reported, but the small town of Heimdal and a number of farms near the crash site were evacuated. The derailment came less than a week after the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new safety rules for transporting crude oil by rail.
May 19: Goleta, California
An underground pipeline owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline ruptured, leaking up to 101,000 gallons of crude oil—an estimated 21,000 gallons of which went into the Pacific Ocean. The Coast Guard stopped the leak three hours after it was first reported. The spill created two oil slicks in the water totalling nine miles, and thick black tar washed up on the shore. Refugio and El Capitan state beaches were closed, along with nearby fisheries.
June 3: Little Rock, Arkansas
A Spectra Energy Corp. natural gas pipeline running beneath the Arkansas River ruptured, releasing four million cubic feet of gas—enough to fuel about 65 homes for a year. No injuries were reported, but a tugboat reported an explosion and sustained unspecified damages, and a two-mile stretch of the river was closed indefinitely.
June 9: Unityville, Pennsylvania
A Williams Gas natural gas pipeline ruptured and leaked, resulting in an explosion and fire. The gas was shut off quickly, and no injuries were reported, but residents within a three-mile radius—about 130 people—were evacuated from their homes.
July 7: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Baton Rouge Fire Department evacuated several businesses after Royal Dutch Shell’s Bengal refined-products pipeline leaked one barrel of hazardous materials. The company shut two pipelines to identify the cause of the leak, and the evacuation order was lifted later in the day.
July 10: Highland, Illinois
A spill at the Plains All American Pipeline Pocahontas pump station sent 4,200 gallons of crude oil into Silver Creek, which empties into Silver Lake, the water reservoir for the city of Highland. The company placed protective booms to keep the oil from reaching the lake, and the EPA found no impact on the public water supply. Still, days later a class action lawsuit was filed against the company. Plains All American was also responsible for the May 19 Santa Barbara oil spill.
July 10: Barwick, Ontario
Fourteen cars of a CN train derailed, and one car leaked an estimated 12,000 gallons of petroleum distillates. Containment booms were put in place, and no injuries were reported. About 60 homes were evacuated.
July 16: Culbertson, Montana
About 20 tanker cars of a 106-car Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF train derailed, spilling 35,000 gallons of crude oil. A BNSF hazardous materials team used earthen dams to contain the oil before it reached any waterways, and no injuries were reported, but about 30 people had to be evacuated from their homes.
July 17: Fort McMurray, Alberta
About five million liters of emulsion—a mixture of bitumen, sand, and water—spilled when a warning system failed to detect a leak in a high-pressure pipeline at Nexen Energy’s Long Lake oilsands facility. The spill covers an area of about 16,000 square meters near the Clearwater River, which flows into the Athabasca River. Though the company contained the site with berms, nearby First Nations groups say the spill will seriously damage muskeg habitat, an important source of game, wild berries, and aboriginal medicines.
August 11: Shelby County, Missouri
Enbridge Inc. shut off two crude oil pipelines after officials noticed a small leak of about 20 gallons. Both the 193,000-barrel-per-day Spearhead pipeline and the 600,000-barrel-per-day Flanagan South pipeline, which run from Illinois to Oklahoma, were taken out of service while crews looked for the source of the leak.
August 14: Chateh, Alberta
A NuVista Energy pipeline leaked an estimated 100,000 liters of bitumen emulsion onto the Hay Lake Indian Reserve. A helicopter crew discovered the spill during a daily aerial surveillance flight. The company alerted Dene Tha’ First Nation leaders and the Alberta Energy Regulator to the incident and set up a fence to keep wildlife away from the spill area.
September 19: Scotland, South Dakota
A 98-car BNSF tanker train carrying ethanol derailed in a rural area, leaking the volatile liquid into pastureland, where it caught fire. No one was injured, and officials are still investigating what caused seven cars to leave the tracks.
October 23: Porter Ranch, California
A faulty natural gas well at a Southern California Gas storage facility began leaking methane at a rate of more than 66,500 pounds per hour. As of today, January 8, the well is still spewing the potent greenhouse gas, and SoCalGas estimates it will be February or March before they can contain the leak. Nearby residents are reporting symptoms including headaches, dizziness, and nausea. So far, two schools have been closed, and the company has paid to relocate 2,500 families.
October 27: Brownsville, Pennsylvania
A coal train derailed along the Monongahela River near the Alicia Transshipment Facility. Eight cars full of coal toppled over onto the Norfolk Southern Railway’s main line. Though the cars bore the CSX logo, the company says its employees were not involved in the incident. There were no injuries, and crews used a backhoe to remove the tons of coal from the overturned cars.
November 7: Alma, Wisconsin
Twenty-five cars of a BNSF train went off the tracks near the Mississippi River, the third derailment within the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in a span of nine months. Five of the derailed cars leaked as much as 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the water. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources concluded that the spill was not harmful to aquatic life.
November 8: Watertown, Wisconsin
Just one day after the derailment in Alma, a 100-car Canadian Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in southeastern Wisconsin. Thirteen cars jumped the tracks and one was punctured, leaking about 1,000 gallons of product. Officials contained and siphoned off the spill before it could reach waterways. No injuries were reported, but some 35 nearby homes were evacuated. The railway put the residents up in hotels for the night.
November 9: Des Moines County, Iowa
Two engines and 19 loaded coal cars derailed and overturned when a freight train struck a road grader on the tracks. The driver of the road grader was taken to the hospital.
December 1: Watford City, North Dakota
A pump leak at a disposal well owned by Wyoming-based True Oil LLC spilled 17,640 gallons of brine, an unwanted by-product of oil production. The company says the brine was contained and recovered at the site.
by The Editors | On Earth