On most days, the Mid-Valley Pipeline moves more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil from Texas to the refineries of the upper Midwest.
But on June 29, a “bush hog” mower caused the suspension of that multi-state operation when it ruptured the pipeline and spilled 4,800 barrels – about 201,000 gallons – of crude oil in the West Tennessee town of Henderson.
The pipeline spill was the second largest ever in Tennessee and the largest in the U.S. in roughly two years, according to federal regulators. It comes just months after Gov. Bill Lee signed a law stripping local governments of the ability to block oil and gas pipeline projects over concerns about potential health and environmental impacts.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) opened an investigation into the spill, a spokesperson said. But until the investigation provides more details, experts said the fact that a mower was able to rupture a supposedly buried pipeline raises questions about how controversial fossil fuel giant Energy Transfer and its subsidiary Mid-Valley Pipeline Company have been inspecting and maintaining the line.
“Who was monitoring the line and what were they looking for?’” asked Richard Kurpewicz, president of Accufacts Inc. and a longtime pipeline industry consultant who has testified before Congress. “People like to think ‘these are accidents.’ No, these are all preventable releases.”
While all oil spills are dangerous, this one appears to have had a relatively minor impact: there was no reported harm to people, property or agricultural land and no evacuations, said Chester County Emergency Management Director Johny Faris. The ruptured pipeline was in a rural area several thousand feet from the nearest home and the spill was quickly contained, Faris said, although cleanup is ongoing.
The crude oil made a roughly 400-foot path from the ruptured pipeline to nearby Horse Creek but was contained before it could spread to other waterways, Faris said. As WPLN reported last week, the spill was not far from the state’s largest aquifer. Horse Creek runs into the South Forked Deer River, which connects to the recharge zone of the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
It could have been much worse but the question remains: why was the pipe exposed?
‘Very, very unlikely’
Pipeline owner Energy Transfer performs both aerial and ground patrols of pipelines in accordance with pipeline safety regulations, spokesperson Lauren Atchley said. But she couldn’t identify the last time the company inspected the Henderson section of the line. She didn’t respond to questions about the size of the exposure and if the company knew about the exposed area prior to the spill.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety, last inspected the line in 2019 and was in the midst of a records review when the spill occurred. The agency was planning a field inspection in August, a spokesperson said.
Energy Transfer subsidiary Mid-Valley Pipeline Company has been penalized for inspection failures in recent years. In 2019, federal regulators fined the Mid-Valley Pipeline Company $23,500 for inspection failures in places in Tennessee and Mississippi where vegetation made aerial inspection impossible.
“Effective patrolling is one of the best ways for a pipeline operator to identify encroachments, third-party damage, and leaks along its [right of way] that might not otherwise be detectable and should never be compromised,” regulators wrote.
Federal regulations require pipeline operators to install oil pipelines between at least 30 and 48 inches underground. However, outside of designated areas near population centers, there are no rules mandating pipelines remain buried after installation. Eventually, weather can erode the ground above buried pipelines and expose them. This is especially a concern for aging pipeline sections like the one in Henderson, which was installed in 1950.
To avoid spills from exposed pipelines, federal regulators should adopt rules requiring pipeline operators to make sure their lines remain a specified distance underground after installation, said Bill Caram, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust.
“If you’re going to require operators to install a pipeline at a certain depth, there’s obviously a reason for that,” Caram said. “They should be required to maintain some level of depth of coverage.”
Surface exposure increases the risk machinery could damage the pipe. Exposure to the elements can also corrode and weaken the integrity of the line, which may explain why a mower impact caused a spill, Vanderbilt civil engineering professor Sanjiv Gokhole said.
“It just seems very, very unlikely that a mere running into a steel pipeline would cause oil spillage of this nature,” Gokhole said.
A history of violations
In 2019, Mid-Valley Pipeline and sister company Sunoco Pipeline reached an agreement with federal and state regulators to pay $5 million in penalties related to crude oil spills in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Both companies are owned by Energy Transfer, which also owns the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and has run afoul of both regulators and law enforcement in recent years.
Late last year, Pennsylvania charged the company with 48 environmental crimes during the construction of its Mariner East 2 natural gas pipeline. The state alleged Energy Transfer discharged 80,000 gallons of drilling fluid into a local lake and failed to report the discharges to the state. And earlier this year, Pennsylvania charged Energy Transfer subsidiary ETC Northeast Pipeline with nine environmental crimes related to a 2018 explosion at one of its natural gas pipelines, which destroyed a home and damaged powerlines. Both criminal cases are ongoing.
In 2021, Pennsylvania regulators fined Energy Transfer $2 million for its role in the explosion. But fines are unlikely to hurt the company’s bottom line: That same year, the company reported a net income of $6.6 billion.
Onshore oil spills the size of the one in Henderson are relatively rare. In 2010, 19,500 barrels of oil spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. In 2011, a Montana pipeline spilled 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. In 2015, 3,400 barrels of crude spilled in California’s Santa Barbara County.
The spill in Henderson was the largest hazardous liquid pipeline spill since a 1.4 million-gallon gasoline spill in Huntersville, North Carolina in 2020, according to PHMSA. The largest spill in Tennessee history was a 357,000-gallon spill on the same pipeline in 1988 near Clarksville, according to the Pipeline Safety Trust.
Smaller spills are more common. The U.S. pipeline system, which includes liquid natural gas, crude oil and gasoline pipelines, averaged an annual total of 265 “significant” incidents — those involving a spill of five barrels or more – between 2010 and 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Josh Keefe can be reached via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thejoshkeefe.
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