May 01, 2017

Oil & Water

Calls to action over spills, pipelines & Superfund sites on the uptick

In the April issue of WQP, Susan White began a series of articles on the rise in water contamination concerns across the U.S. The following article is the second part in her series.

While lead and perfluorinated compounds continue to hold the public’s attention, other contamination concerns are arising across the country. For those living near oil pipelines and current and former industrial sites, groundwater and surface water contamination resulting from spills past, present and future are a worry.

Pipelines & Oil Spills

After President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated in January, his administration quickly began actions to reverse many rollbacks in oil pipeline production, despite incidences of spills and compromised oil pipelines in 2016.

One such incident occurred in January near Blue Ridge, Texas, where 600,000 gal of oil spilled out of the Seaway Pipeline. Following the spill, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted water and environmental testing. According to TxDOT, it would take up to several weeks before the area was completely cleaned up.

On Dec. 12, 2016, the Huffington Post reported that approximately 150 miles from Dakota Access Pipeline protests, “a pipeline in the western part of North Dakota has spilled more than 130,000 gal of oil into a creek.” The Associated Press reported that True Cos., the owner of the pipeline, has reported 36 other spills since 2006. Those spills amounted to more than 320,000 gal of petroleum products.

On Jan. 26, NPR reported on a pipeline leaking diesel fuel in Iowa. The pipeline’s owner, Magellan Midstream Partners, estimated 138,000 gal had been spilled.

Iowa Public Radio reported the leak was found in a farm field in Iowa where a 12-in. underground pipe was leaking the diesel fuel. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), EPA and representatives from Magellan visited the site of the leak, which Jeff Vansteenburg, an Iowa DNR official, told the Des Moines Register is “a big one—it’s significant.”

A new study on fracking-related spills published by Environmental Science & Technology of Duke University on Feb. 21 revealed 6,648 spills in four states alone—Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania—from 2005 to 2014. The researchers determined that 2% to 16% of fracked oil and gas wells spill hydrocarbons, chemical-laden water, fracking fluids and other substances.

Superfund Sites on the Horizon

It seems every day there is another report of contaminated groundwater due to industrial runoff, seepage or spill. On Feb. 28, in an article on the FairWarning website, Dan Ross wrote that environmental agencies have let groundwater contamination at toxic cleanup sites across the country go untreated over time. This strategy is called monitored natural attenuation, and Ross noted that it ”saves money for polluters but could cost taxpayers dearly and jeopardize drinking water supplies.” Its use has grown in the U.S. since the 1990s as a way to cut cleanup costs.

“Despite the imposing bureaucratic name, it basically means keeping a watchful eye while natural processes purge groundwater of chemical pollution,” Ross wrote. According to the article, EPA guidelines allow for this approach under some circumstances, such as when “contaminants are expected to degrade in years rather than centuries, and where there is no risk of polluted water seeping into, and spoiling, freshwater supplies.” The process can be effective for contaminants that are eaten by microbes in soil and groundwater, such as petroleum hydrocarbons.

Such strategies may not do much to ease residents’ minds, especially as more incidences of contamination are revealed. A current example is in Bethpage, N.Y., where a plume of contamination is threatening groundwater supplies. On Feb. 17, WABC reported that the plume is moving, which means it could affect even more people. “We need to stop the plume from reaching any other water districts—that is our single goal,” said Basil Seggos, commissioner for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, in the article.

The plume began decades ago as a result of disposal methods at a Grumman plant that produced weapons and planes for the U.S. Navy. According to WABC, New York state is paying to conduct a study on the plume using funds from the state Superfund. Local resident Jean-Paul Zuhur does not believe the state or taxpayers should have to pay for the study or cleanup. ”The company that did all the damage should probably be paying us out, or they should be funding the entire project,” he said in the report.

On the opposite side of the country, similar concerns are affecting a California community. Groundwater and air contamination issues continue to prevail at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a Superfund site in Simi Valley, Calif. This 2,859-acre complex of industrial research and development facilities was used mainly for the development and testing of liquid-propellant rocket engines for the U.S. space program from 1949 to 2006, the development and testing of nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980, and the operation of a U.S. government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998.

Today, more than 150,000 people live within 5 miles of the facility, and at least half a million people live within 10 miles. Several spills and releases occurred over the decades at these facilities, and health issues have resulted from this contamination, including rare childhood cancers. Some progress has been made, but the soil and water are still contaminated just as new housing developments are being built in surrounding areas. Cleanup actions are currently underway. 

The third and final part of this series will appear in the June issue of WQP. 

About the author

Susan White is a freelance writer and marketing consultant for water treatment professionals. White can be reached at [email protected].

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