The Common Good

Why the Silence on U.S. Oil Spills?

Occurrences of oil spills in several states have garnered little media attention in the last few years. In some cases, prompt reports are recorded, yet in others, days have gone by before the authorities are alerted and the spill becomes public knowledge.

The most recent episode happened Oct. 15, in Port of Long Beach, Calif. Upon discovery of an oil leak, Exxon Mobil announced that it was temporarily suspending operations of its pipeline system. The pipeline, which connects to the company’s refinery in Torrance, carries up to 155,000 barrels of oil per day. Exxon filed documents with the California Emergency Management Agency that claimed the leak did not affect waterways, although the company was ordered to pay a $236 million fine for contaminating groundwater in New Hampshire this past April.  

Another spill was initially discovered on Sept. 29 by North Dakota farmer Steve Jensen, the Associated Press reported. While harvesting wheat, Jensen discovered the leak in his field “spewing and bubbling 6 inches high.” The rupture was a break in Tesoro Corporation’s underground pipeline. While it remains unconfirmed, early evidence cites that corrosion on the 20-year-old pipeline is the cause of rupture. At least 20,600 barrels of oil flooded the 7-acre spill zone, equal to about 7 football fields.

The delay in making public North Dakota’s oil spill proves as worrisome as the spill itself. It took 11 days after the spill’s discovery for it to become public knowledge. Officials claim they were not aware how extensive the spill was, but critics point to the state’s financial benefits in the recent gas and oil boom as reason for the authorities’ hesitancy in coming down on oil companies. But economic incentives shouldn’t diminish the serious need to weigh environmental risks and costs.

The cases begin to pile up.

The Mayflower, Ark. spill, (another Exxon Mobil pipeline that ruptured) on March 29 released thousands of barrels of oil and led to the evacuation of over 20 homes, some of which are now being demolished.

The July 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River unleashed 80,000 gallons of oil into the water, and subsequently county health departments instated a ban on the river’s recreational use. Most of river was reopened nearly two years later. A recent report informs that no long lasting health effects are anticipated from the spill.

Would oil refining companies seek to downplay the frequency of rupture and extent of damage to humans and the environment? With the EPA under fire, can we rely on the federal or state government to tell us when our water and soil are safe after a spill? For the many stakeholders, including big business and politicians, the political and financial incentives to keep mum on spills and minimize media exposure carry incredible weight. And then it must be asked, why has much of the mainstream media fallen short in coverage of what seems to be a troubling trend?

To note, lastly, that this concern is not subject to the United States alone, on Oct. 17, news in Canada reported a gas line rupture in northern Alberta. Officials are currently investigating the leak, and notified First Nations living in the area. TransCanada, who owns the ruptured pipeline, is also the company at the helm of the highly controversial Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

Anna Hall is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Oil spill cleanup, Arun Roisri / Shutterstock.com

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