The State Department’s second try at analyzing the environmental impacts of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline does not adequately address potential spills and health impacts for communities near refineries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week.
TransCanada wants to build a 1,700 mile long extension to its Keystone pipeline in order to move 830,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands region to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas.
Because the project is international in scope, the permitting process is the responsibility of the U.S. State Dept., which is under intense political pressure to approve the project.
Last summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that the State Dept.’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project was inadequate and failed to inform the public about the potential consequences of the project.
In April the State Dept. issued a Supplementary Draft Environmental Impact Statement and in response this week EPA said the agency still hasn‘t adequately analyzed the risks of the project.
“As EPA and the State Department have discussed many times, EPA recommends that the State Department improve the analysis of oil spill risks and alternative pipeline routes, provide additional analysis of potential impacts to communities along the pipeline route and adjacent to refineries and the associated environmental justice concerns, together with ways to mitigate those impacts, improve the discussion of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions (OHOs) associated with oil sands crude, and improve the analysis of potential impacts to wetlands and migratory bird populations,“ Cynthia Giles EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance wrote in a June 6 letter.
Giles said that EPA remains concerned that TransCanada’s plan to rely on pressure drops and aerial surveys for spill detection could allow small leaks to go undetected, resulting in large spill volumes, and she recommended the dept. consider installing more shut-off valves in sensitive wetland areas.
In order to establish the environmental and health impacts of potential pipeline spills and develop appropriate response plans, the State Dept. needs to analyze all of the chemicals that would move through the pipeline, she said.
Of particular concern are the diluents — chemicals that are used to dilute sludgy tar sands crude so that it can be pumped through pipelines.
“In the recent Enbridge oil spill in Michigan, for example, benzene was a component of the diluent used to reduce the viscosity of the oil sands crude so that it could be transported through a pipeline,” she wrote. “Benzene is a volatile organic compound, and following the spill in Michigan, high benzene levels in the air prompted the issuance of voluntary evacuation notices to residents in the area by the local county health department.”
Giles noted that parts of the Keystone pipeline that are already in operation by TransCanada in North Dakota and Kansas have developed leaks in the last month.
She also indicated that EPA has doubts about the State Dept.‘s conclusion that processing the oil from the Keystone XL pipeline won’t have a disproportionate impact on minority and low income communities around refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Randy Thompson of Martell, Nebraska manages a family farm of irrigated cropland and pasture land that would be bisected by the Keystone XL project as it crosses the Ogalala aquifer. He said he finds EPA’s latest statement encouraging.
“I feel like someone is actually taking a serious look at what could happen with the pipeline and the damage to our sand hills and water supply,” he said. “I don’t think [the State Dept.] ever had anyone come out here, boots on the ground, and look at the water table. In the spring there is water on the ground.”
Thompson said too many questions about the project remain unanswered.
“We need to know what is in this solution, how it reacts with the pipe itself … how it interacts with the water if it were to spill.”
Matthew Tejada, executive director for Air Alliance Houston, said he appreciates EPA’s attention to the project’s environmental justice implications for communities in Texas.
“It is inarguable that it will have a detrimental impact on those communities that are already overburdened,” he said.
Tejada said that EPA should have a leading role in evaluating the Keystone XL pipeline project and that the State Dept. should defer to EPA when it comes to working with community groups.
“I think it is really obvious from the limited public engagement they had on the topic … that they are not used to or enthusiastic about interaction with Americans about these types of environmental and public health issues.”
National Wildlife Federation spokesman Tony Iallonardo agreed that EPA’s participation in the pipeline permitting process is crucial.
“EPA is proving a pivotal voice within the Obama administration for people at risk from Keystone XL,” he said. “EPA’s involvement has also underscored how the State Department is ill-equipped to make critical decisions on pipeline safety and national energy priorities. … America’s next oil disaster is underway in part because of State Department’s undue rush to accelerate the piping of corrosive and pressurized tar sludge.”Tags: diluents, Keystone XL, tar sands oil