Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Pipeline leaks, sinking cultural sites, & Appalachian folk healing

Four days after the Keystone XL Pipeline spilled at least 210,000 gallons of crude oil in South Dakota, state regulators in Nebraska voted 3-2 to approve a new route for it. If completed, the pipeline would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, through southern Nebraska, to a network of pipelines that flow to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast.

“Common sense has gone out the window on this project,” rancher Randy Thompson told Reuters after the commission’s decision. The vote removed the last major permitting hurdle for the controversial $8 billion project, but it still has a ways to go: the project has already been long-delayed, even with a federal permit from President Trump, and now 40 new landowners must give approval for the new route.

Following this news, High Country News editor Jonathan Thompson created a useful interactive map of oil spills in the U.S. from 2015 to 2017, to show how common spills like the Keystone one actually are. Check it out here. According to his reporting, pipelines carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials spilled at a rate of more than once per day in the U.S. in that two-and-a-half year span, and about 3.6 million gallons of oil spilled in total.

In the South, the largest spill in that time frame was from the Colonial Pipeline, which leaked 250,000 gallons of oil in Alabama just over a year ago, then exploded, killing two workers who were there to fix the leak. It was the fifth time the massive pipeline spilled in Alabama in 2016, and one of 183 reported incidents since 2005. The company recently said that it has improved its inspection and monitoring processes.

The EPA’s cleanup efforts after the 2016 Colonial Pipeline spill in Alabama. Credit: EPA

At first glance of the map, it’s nearly impossible to see the state of Louisiana, which has seen multiple major leaks, including the Harvest Pipeline spill last year and the Phillips 66 Pipeline explosion in February 2017, which injured five workers and presumably killed another. There are also reports of oil spills across the rest of the region, in North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Many of these are small dots on the map, documented by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration but going generally unnoticed by the public.

This data set doesn’t even account for natural gas pipeline leaks, which release methane into the atmosphere, or the drilling fluid spills during construction of those projects — an issue that is becoming more relevant as the U.S. enters a pipeline boom with the backing of the Trump administration.

Already, some regions are seeing the consequences of this surge, and the battles Keystone developers are waging against landowners and public lands are playingout all over the country. Earlier this week, the Ohio EPA said it was issuing new violations against Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Rover Pipeline, which has reportedly received more environmental violations than any other natural gas pipeline in the U.S. There’s worry similar damage will happen in Florida as the Sabal Trail Pipeline is constructed, as well with the spiderweb of natural gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline stretching from Appalachia.

While the risks of a crude oil pipeline are tangible — we know all too well the images of black liquid smothering wetlands, coating wildlife, intoxicating streams — the risks of natural gas pipeline leaks don’t necessarily hold the same weight. A few months ago, I spoke with a Lumbee tribal elder about the impacts the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could have on her North Carolina community. There aren’t spill risks they can pinpoint to on their land, she said, so their main defense, besides the fact that Native Americans are disproportionately impacted by the project, is climate change and how natural gas extraction contributes to it.

Historically, that argument hasn’t landed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), many state regulators, or rural, conservative communities who believe they will benefit greatly from the jobs, economic growth, and opportunities the projects provide. More recently, though, states like West Virginia and Virginia are spending more time examining environmental impacts of these projects, and courts are reportedly pushing FERC to consider emissions and climate change in its decisions. More light is being shed on leaks, eminent domain claims are being challenged, and some lawsuits are gaining traction. There’s no end in sight for these controversies, but many stakeholders who were reluctant to acknowledge the risks before are finding that they are no longer as easy to ignore.

Stories worth your time

Louisville, Kentucky, which sits in a valley along the Ohio River, has some of the worst air quality in the U.S. from pollution, heat islands, and high pollen counts. But it also has some of the most innovative approaches to tackling that pollution. Politico takes an in-depth look at how city leaders, tech companies, and nonprofits have teamed up to find out who is most at risk and what is being done about it.

White nationalists are using Tennessee’s state parks as their meeting grounds after being kicked out of private venues all over the state, The Tennessean reports.

Atlas Obscura dives into the world of women who practice Appalachian folk healing. “Like everything else in the South, there’s a combination of European, African, and Native American influences,” said Sara Amis, a writer and instructor at the University of Georgia.

The talented Jessica Leigh Hester went to Miami for CityLab to write about the more than 16,000 archaeological sites around Florida at risk of drowning as sea levels rise. “For as long as people and creatures have inhabited present-day Florida, they’ve been shedding traces of their lives,” she wrote. “But the scattered sites testify to millennia before the shores were dotted with high-rises fashioned from glass and steel.”

News flying under the radar

Thirty-eight coal train cars derailed in Wise County, Virginia, dumping 400 tons of coal into a nearby creek.

Disproportionate exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like PCBs may explain why black, Latino, and low-income Americans are more likely to have diabetes than wealthy white people. Quartz reports on how Afton, North Carolina residents who protested PCB waste sites might be affected.

A rural Mississippi county is trying to start a recycling program — and that’s a pretty big deal for them. Washington County now has a 20-year solid waste agreement with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and they’re searching for drop-off points that people will actually use.

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who introduced a bill to abolish the EPA, is now on the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which has 31 Democratic and 31 Republican members.

A decade ago, Tennessee officials approved the dumping of low-level radioactive waste at a landfill in Murfreesboro. Now, as the state prepares to import 22 million pounds of nuclear waste from Canada for processing, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has scrubbed data about that and other radioactive waste from its website.