Friday, October 25, 2013

Oil spill detection more lax in rural places

This recent story about a pipeline rupture in North Dakota highlights something I have known since I started researching rural-urban difference in relation to the law back in 2004:  rural places are less regulated than urban ones on many fronts, in many ways.  Further, this doesn't just happen as a de factor matter (which was my focus here), the distinction is often de jure, as laws or regulations set different standards for rural places than for urban ones.  One example of this is noted in my 2006 article, Rural Rhetoric, where I wrote that in 1976, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld application of a standard-setting code that required greater safety when laying pipeline in urban areas than in rural ones. The court said that the plaintiffs had failed to show that pipelines which met the rural standard denied them equal protection.  The law at stake there was USAS Standard B31.8 Code for Pressure Piping, and the case was Barnes v. Transok Pipeline Co., 549 P.2d 819, 821 (Okla. 1976).

Now, as Dan Frosch reports on a recent spill in Tioga, North Dakota, population 1,230, the issue of more lax regulation in rural areas, comes to the fore more publicly.  Frosch quotes Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health:
This section of the pipeline was not required to have leak monitoring or pressure sensors.  And it didn’t.
The story does not specify the relevant law, but it may be the same one that was litigated in Barnes in Oklahoma nearly four decades ago.  Frosch does note that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration mandates that companies have some means of detecting leaks on their pipelines but offers little other guidance.
The regulations emphasize the protection of environmentally sensitive areas and population centers, leaving more isolated sections of pipeline monitored less stringently.
* * * 
Tesoro officials said the company had monitored the pipeline’s pressure remotely but acknowledged that was not enough.
Frosch quotes Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust:
Even though people have been calling for better leak detection, it is usually a landowner who finds the spills.  It runs counter to what the industry tells us, that they can detect and shut off these spills in a minutes, when they actually go on for days.
The Tioga spill was discovered by farmer Steven Jensen.  It spread across seven acres of his farm.  At 865,000 gallons, it is one of the largest inland oil spills in the U.S.  Frosch paraphrases state officials, who were slow to disclose the Tioga spill:  
Fortunately, they said, the accident occurred in a remote area, away from water and homes. 
Something tells me that Mr. Jensen probably doesn't see it that way.  

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