Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The following statement was prepared for Thursday’s Portage County Commissioners pipeline meeting. I’ll have a write up of the meeting next week.

Pipelines leak. Last summer’s spill in Arkansas was so severe that houses had to be demolished because of it. Last September there was a six inch pipeline spill of almost a million gallons in North Dakota. These are just two of the most dramatic examples from the last year. A little over a year ago a report commissioned by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) documented hundreds of spills throughout the country.

Oil Pipeline

“It is up to us to think in advance what those hazards might be, and to insist that business as usual is not good enough.”

So the prudent question for any community faced with a new pipeline should not be, will it leak? But rather, what happens once it does leak? The industry’s monitoring schemes are often inadequate. As Reuters reported of the North Dakota spill: “A robot, known as a ‘smart pig,’ detected anomalies during what Tesoro called routine internal inspections of the pipeline September 10 and 11.” Yet no action was taken on that. All the high tech monitoring in the world is useless if the company does not dedicate the resources to act promptly when a red flag is raised.

The industry claims to be vigilant about watching for spills, but the PHMSA reported that for hazardous liquid pipelines “[a]n emergency responder or a member of the public was more likely to identify a release than air patrols, operator ground crew and contractors.” That was the case in North Dakota: It was discovered by a farmer, and not disclosed to the public for eleven days. Will Sunoco depend on the citizens of Portage County to be its eyes and ears as well? If not, then what do we have beyond its earnest assurances?

Transparency and disclosure are important concerns as well. In Arkansas, an oil company consultant was put in charge of a no fly zone over the site of the spill, giving the company the ability to prevent the public from understanding the scope of the disaster. Has Sunoco made any binding commitment to not choke off the flow of information if the oil starts flowing?

Finally, who will be in charge of remediation? As a citizen I would greatly prefer our local public first responders be given the proper training and equipment to do so. Having private, company-funded contractors in charge means trusting that the company adequately funds the operation.

Safety does not have a return on investment, though, and over time it will be tempting – maybe irresistibly so – to skimp on it. Moreover, what transparency will there be for this privatized force? Will its employees be silenced by gag orders and nondisclosure agreements? The normal means of democratic accountability that apply to public servants will not apply to them. Vital safety information could easily be withheld.

Large conglomerates are profit-seeking entities, and they pursue those profits amorally. If they can maximize profit by being good corporate citizens and working in good faith with a community, they will. If they can maximize profit by cutting corners and stonewalling when a PR nightmare erupts, they will. It is no comment on the integrity of their employees to say that these impersonal entities will, if the bottom line so dictates, needlessly visit great hazard on a community and leave that community to fend for itself if something goes wrong.

It is up to us to think in advance what those hazards might be, and to insist that business as usual is not good enough. Pipeline companies have proved to be extraordinarily poor neighbors of late, and we should require a much higher standard of conduct for one that wants to move into our neighborhood.

Photo from Joel Penner licensed under Creative Commons