April 1 was no joke in Lansing, Michigan, when equipment at a power plant malfunctioned and caused 300 gallons of oil to leak into the Grand River. Two days later in Chalmette, Louisiana, a pipeline connected to a drum full of chemicals broke, releasing the toxic liquid into the surrounding area, along with airborne cancer-causing agents. These two incidents followed even worse disasters in Mayflower, Arkansas and West Columbia, Texas. This means that the U.S. endured four spills over the course of two weeks. And still, oil companies have not been brought to justice.
The Michigan spill occurred at the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s Eckert Power Plant, and for once, the spill came from somewhere other than an oil corporation, small comfort though it may be. Lansing Board of Water and Light is a publicly owned municipal utility that provides water and electricity to Lansing and East Lansing. An equipment failure at their plant caused turbine oil to escape, and soon make its way into the adjacent Grand River.
The utility staff deployed three booms to contain the oil, and the EPA was on the scene almost immediately. Impacts to the local ecosystem are still being assessed, but thick dark patches could be seen by people in parts of the river after the time of the spill.
“An oil spill in the Grand River is alarming, and we’re calling for a thorough investigation to determine the extent of the damage and its environmental impact,” said Nick Clark, Michigan director for Clean Water Action. “This is another reason why it’s so vital to make clean, renewable energy a priority. There is no environmental fallout connected with clean energy sources like wind or solar power.”
Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality, remarked that though the spill is “manageable in terms of the substance … and in terms of the environment’s ability to absorb it,” the smaller size of the incident (in comparison with those in Arkansas and Texas) by no means lessens the negative impact. “It’s not a minor spill. We take it very seriously. Nobody wants to see anything spilled in the river. … We’ll probably continue to see [a] sheen [in the river] in the near term.”
Luckily, since the oil spilled was hydraulic, rather than tarsands crude, it would cause no foul odor. Nor, said Wurfel, would it release any airborne pollutants. Both of these facts are more than can be said for Louisiana.
In Chalmette, not far from New Orleans, ExxonMobil has added a new disaster to its list of anti-accomplishments. While its Pegasus pipeline continues to poison the Arkansas town of Mayflower, a thick liquid chemical mixture is infecting the air and ground in Louisiana. A pipeline malfunction at ExxonMobil’s refinery there caused a (so far) undisclosed amount of the liquid to poison the immediate outside area. Though the leak was quickly reported and stopped, the damage is done.
On the day of that incident, people throughout Chalmette and New Orleans reported a strong, foul odor not unlike oil or gasoline. That was the effect of the chemical, which released 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 10 pounds of benzene into the air. The latter is, according to Before It’s News, “a volatile organic carbon compound known to cause cancer.”
Petty Officer Jason Screws, of the Coast Guard National Response Center, who was overseeing the accident, added, “The odor threshold for these chemicals is very low. You can smell it a lot sooner when the concentration is enough to be harmful.” In other words, it was released in a large enough amount to have a negative health impact.
The bottom line is that oil has tainted land and water in four different states in two consecutive weeks, and right in the midst of right-wing attempts to drum up support for pipeline oil transportation, to boot. Just days before the Arkansas pipeline leak, Alex Pourbaix, president of Keystone XL company TransCanada, had done his best to tout pipelines as the best option for transporting crude. “If you’re actually concerned about the environment, you very much want to see oil moving by pipeline,” he lied.
On April 11, as part of the ongoing effort to show just how wrong such sentiments are, environmentalists from Texas and various parts of the Gulf Coast rallied outside the G8 foreign ministers’ meeting at the Lancaster House in London. Their goal was to send a clear message to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: that the Keystone XL pipeline must be rejected – particularly after this latest string of oil disasters.
Environmental justice advocate Bryan Parras, who lives in Houston (very near to the West Columbia spill), remarked, “The XL pipeline is set to deliver a toxic slurry of dirty oil to communities all over the U.S. As we’ve seen from the pipeline spills in [these] last two weeks, the delivery of tarsands is too risky and costly for the communities [that are] in harm’s way.” The solution, he concluded, is simple: “Keep the oil in the soil.”
Photo: An oil-soaked duck recovers in a wildlife management area in Mayflower, Ark. after being exposed to oil there. The Mayflower incident is the worst of the four U.S. spills that have so far occurred over a two-week period. Courtney Spradlin/AP & Log Cabin Democrat