A group of salamanders is recovering at Dayton’s Boonshoft Museum after being removed from the site of an oil spill north of Cincinnati last month. The Mid-Valley pipeline, which is operated by Sunoco Logistics, leaked at least 19,000 gallons of oil into the Oak Glen Nature Preserve. The pipeline runs from Texas to Michigan through Ohio, and WYSO found it’s one of the leakiest in the country.
“The whole wetland area was layered in oil”
In a cool, dark room in the back of the Boonshoft Museum, Mark Mazzei, the museum’s curator of live animals, carefully removes small darkly-colored salamanders from tupperware boxes and makes beds for them out of paper towels and moss. The museum, working with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, has become home to 64 salamanders picked up on their way to a creek in Oak Glen Nature Preserve in Cincinnati.
“They’re not the most brightly-colored or fantastic-looking guys,” Mazzei admits. But he says they were among the most at-risk of the animals affected by the spill due to the fact that it’s their breeding season. These slimy blackish creatures come up from their underground burrows very rarely, and when they do, they’re particular about where they go—returning year after year to the waterway where they were born.
The emergency team intercepted the salamanders at a barrier constructed around the area of the oil spill, which was discovered in the night of March 17 after Colerain Township residents called their fire department complaining of a petroleum smell.
“The whole creek and the whole wetland area was layered in oil,” says Mazzei, who has been to the site to help pick up salamanders.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency confirmed in mid-April that they had removed 35,000 gallons of water and nearly 19,000 gallons of oil from the site. The line has been patched and is back up and running at a lower pressure, although the cause of the leak is still under investigation.
Chronic Problems On Mid-Valley Pipeline
This is not the first time Sunoco’s aging Mid-Valley line has had problems.
“Sunoco seems to have almost twice as many incidents as the national average for similar liquid pipelines,” says Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust, referring to the Mid-Valley Pipeline specifically. The Trust, based in Washington state, has been monitoring oil spill incidents for years and works with federal regulators and the industry to increase pipeline safety.
Not all reported pipeline incidents are of the same magnitude, plus each pipeline has different mileage through different types of landscapes—which means it’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison between any two pipelines. That said, the Hamilton County incident in March appears to be part of a chronic problem with leaks, spills and violations in Sunoco’s pipeline system in Ohio.
The Mid-Valley Pipeline is 1,103 miles long, with 232 miles of pipeline in Ohio; it’s the part of Sunoco Logistics’ holdings that carries crude oil from Texas to Michigan. According to federal data, Mid-Valley is 100th in the country for mileage, but 25th in the country for number of incidents from 2006-2014, with 43 incidents reported to federal regulators.
Mid-Valley spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers in 2005 and paid millions in fines after the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. EPA brought a case. But every year since then, the line has had multiple incidents, with damages totaling more than $7 million. The line has also been cited several times by PHMSA for not following regulations.
Another Sunoco Logistics holding, Sunoco Pipeline, L.P., ranks 1st in the country in terms of the sheer number of incidents since 2006, with 213 reported. That line, which carries both crude and refined oil in nine state and includes 304 miles in Ohio, has also been the target of federal enforcement actions at an unusually high rate, with 22 actions over the last seven years and a total of more than $1.2 million in fines.
Jeff Shields, a spokesperson for Sunoco Logistics, says the company is working with regulators to prevent future spills.
“We’re doing as much as we can under their supervision to investigate what went wrong here, are there any other issues with the line and see what we need to do to make it completely spill-free,” he says.
Regulators Stretched Thin
These big interstate pipelines are regulated by a federal agency known as PHMSA—the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal inspections on the Mid-Valley Pipeline appear to have been few and far between. But Weimer says that doesn’t stand out to him: PHMSA has what they call a “risk-based system,” which means the companies or lines with more problems with be the target of more inspection and regular inspections are only required every few years.
“They’re really stretched pretty thin, and they keep asking Congress for more money and more personnel but they don’t seem to get it,” he says.
PHMSA declined a recorded interview—but a representative says they look closely at any problems, working with the resources available to them. The agency has just over 100 regulators monitoring 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the U.S. (ProPublica and other news organizations have investigated this issue at the federal level). And pipeline “inspections” from regulators are not actual visual inspections on a length of line—they are inspections of paperwork and documentation compiled by the pipeline operators, who inspect their own lines using a variety of technologies.
All spills and leaks have costs: in Ohio, hazardous liquid pipeline problems have caused seven deaths and $70 million in damages in the last ten years. That’s not to mention pipelines associated with the natural gas industry, a network that’s rapidly expanding in the state right now.
Industry advocates say pipelines are still safer than moving oil or gas by truck or train. The numbers of accidents are smaller, although the occasional accident may lead to a spill in much larger amounts than would be possible with truck or train transport, which carries a limited amount at a time.
Sunoco Covers Costs
The Ohio EPA says Sunoco, at least, has been quick to respond. Dina Pierce, an OHEPA spokesperson, says the agency generally doesn’t penalize companies for spills as long as they are compliant and cover the costs of the cleanup. She says Sunoco Logistics is reimbursing costs for the EPA and local officials involved in the ongoing cleanup effort. And she says she thinks the costs to pipeline operators of spills and corrosion are worth considering.
“They don’t want to lose their product. They want to get it through the pipeline to the refineries...I think that’s an incentive,” Pierce says. If a company doesn’t cooperate in the event of a spill, she says, the EPA can attempt to penalize them for damage to public waterways.
But Sunoco Logistics has plenty of practice remediating spills, and they’ve covered every detail down to room and board for the Boonshoft’s salamanders. The salamanders would have been headed right into an oil slick. Now they’re burrowed under beds of paper towels in a fluorescent-lit room.
“They are definitely out of their element here,” says Mark Mazzei at the Boonshoft.
These little burrowing brown salamanders spend most of their time underground—kind of like pipelines. And, like pipelines, you probably wouldn’t see them or think about them unless something went wrong.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.