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Plains Justice Report: Keystone Emergency Plans Dangerously Inadequate

November 23, 2010

Volunteer prepares to clean oil from the feathers of a heavily-oiled Canada goose at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Michigan (Photo credit: US EPA).

Today Plains Justice released a first-of-its-kind report showing that TransCanada’s emergency response plan and on-the-ground spill defense preparations for the Keystone pipeline system are inadequate to respond to a serious spill along the thousands of miles of buried pipeline already in place or currently proposed in the northern Great Plains. No other publicly available report provides this level of detailed spill response analysis for tar sand pipeline infrastructure in the U.S.

Recent tar sands pipeline spills like the Enbridge spill in Michigan strongly suggest that TransCanada’s new high capacity, high pressure pipelines across the American heartland require greater, not lesser, safety and spill response measures. Unfortunately, based on extensive review of data, Plains Justice concludes that this kind of planning is not in place for the Keystone system.

The report describes serious deficiencies in the emergency response planning implemented by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In many areas of the country, stricter EPA or U.S. Coast Guard regulations provide higher levels of spill defense. But in the Great Plains states, PHMSA’s jurisdiction leaves gaps in response coverage.

August 1, 2010 - Oiled vegetation upstream of Ceresco Dam, Michigan after pipeline spill (Photo credit: US EPA)

In the upper plains in particular, inadequate spill response equipment is located at such distances from tar sands pipelines that the speed of emergency response anticipated by TransCanada in its environmental planning documents is unrealistic. Local infrastructure in geographically remote, non-industrial areas of the northern plains is inadequate to support the kind of spill response activities that proved necessary to contain the large Enbridge spill before it reached Lake Michigan.

The report concludes with a number of detailed recommendations for improvements both in the federal regulatory process and in TransCanada’s planning efforts. The BP Gulf spill demonstrates the importance of planning for all contingencies and having necessary specialized equipment on the ground and ready to go.  The oil industry has great confidence in its technical abilities and resources, but it nonetheless needs to plan for the worst so that it can minimize damage through a quick and effective response.  Quick response requires both good planning and pre-positioning of significant amounts of spill response resources.

More than 700 concerned residents filled the Marshall, MI, high school to learn more about the government response to the Enbridge oil spill. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Lauren Jorgensen and US EPA.)

Areas that have suffered through oil spills, such as Alaska and the Gulf Coast, have large amounts of equipment and personnel ready to go.  The northern Great Plains does not. The kind of emergency response in Michigan that prevented the even greater disaster of an oil spill reaching Lake Michigan was only possible because of relatively quick emergency response – a response that would not be logistically possible under current planning for the northern Great Plains portion of the Keystone pipeline system. This report is intended to promote good planning and an appropriate commitment of industry resources to the northern Great Plains, so that the industry can limit the damage caused by spills – and not just mop up its mistakes.

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