Jan 31 1:00 PM

'Breaking' news: January sees five major pipeline leaks

A spike in pipeline accidents: Crews work to contain an oil spill from Bridger Pipeline's broken pipeline near Glendive, Mont.
Larry Mayer / AP

On Thursday, the Senate voted 62 to 36 to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, which would move heavy crude oil across the Canada-U.S. border and down to Texas refineries and ports. Nine Democrats joined 53 Republicans in voting for the bill, which now must be reconciled with a House version before heading to President Barack Obama’s desk ... and a promised veto.

The pipeline needs White House approval because it crosses an international border, but perhaps odder than the futile effort of crafting legislation that is assured a veto is that the latest public push for the massive pipeline comes at the end of a month that has seen more than its share of serious pipeline accidents.

“Maybe this is just how pipelines celebrate January, but all over the country, pipelines new and old are popping off like roman candles,” said MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Maddow noticed, as did the residents of several states, that there have been five major pipeline ruptures this month.

That we know of.

So far.

The number of major oil- and gas- pipeline accidents has been steadily growing in recent years. A major accident is defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one in which a person is killed or hospitalized because of injury, an explosion or fire occurred, more than five barrels of liquid are released or the total cost of the response exceeds $50,000.

In 2014, there were 73 major accidents, according to a review by the Associated Press — an 87 percent increase over 2009.

On January 17, it was reported that a pipeline underneath the Yellowstone River had ruptured near Glendive, Montana, dumping at least 50,000 gallons of crude into that waterway, endangering the ecology of the river and fouling the drinking water for several communities downstream. According to local media, the ongoing cleanup, hampered by ice, and, conversely, melting ice, has so far recovered less than half the oil.

A similar pipeline accident spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the same river in 2011.

But those volumes pale in comparison to the 3 million gallons of brine — a toxic byproduct of the oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking — that leaked from a pipeline in western North Dakota, near the town of Williston, which, as luck would have it, is also on the Yellowstone River, downstream from the Montana oil spill.

If that number sounds big, it’s because it is. It’s nearly triple the previous record, a 2006 brine spill near Alexander, N.D. — an accident still being cleaned up today.

The new leak, which was detected on January 6 but started some time before that, is dumping the brine into two nearby creeks, one of which flows into the Missouri River. While crews are scrambling to recover some of the toxic slurry, official concede they won’t know the full extent of the disaster until the spring thaw.

The same day the big brine blowout was detected, another pipeline leak — this one spilling only 100,000 gallons of the poisonous mix of oil, water, salt and metal filings — was also found in the Peace Garden State (yes, that is the official state nickname of North Dakota ... now you know).

But that’s not all.

On January 26, in Brooke County, West Virginia, about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a natural gas pipeline exploded, sending a massive fireball into the air. No one was hurt in that accident, which melted siding on nearby homes and damaged power lines; it is believed that day’s snowy weather lessened the damage.

That was the second natural gas pipeline accident this month. When pipe near Jackson, Mississippi, ruptured on January 14, it launched a plume of fire and smoke so huge it was picked up by National Weather Service radar.

“Did you know precipitation isn’t the only thing our radar can see? This morning it detected smoke from a gas line explosion,” the Jackson office of the NWS tweeted, along with the radar image.

January’s spills and explosions join an infamous list of recent pipeline disasters that span from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Mayflower, Arkansas — and if Keystone advocates prevail, maybe Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas can join, too.

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