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Local Zoning Laws = Less Spills

Within the next two weeks, officials in York and Antelope Counties will be reviewing pipeline resolutions and zoning requirements that will ultimately determine how protected the land, water, and people of their counties are in the event that TransCanada receives a presidential permit to build the Keystone XL. You can take action today by sending an email to support the York county actions, http://boldnebraska.org/york-resolution.

It is absolutely imperative that these counties pass strong zoning regulations.

The pipeline industry has worked hard to legitimize the idea that pipelines are sufficiently regulated—in reality, this assertion hides many nuances of pipeline regulation. Most importantly, pipeline regulations are riddled with gaps that leave much to be desired in terms of pipeline safety. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) own mandate, federal pipeline safety standards are “written as the minimum performance standards, setting the level of safety to be attained and allowing the pipeline operators discretion in achieving that level.”  The federal government expects states and local governments to fill in these gaps in regulation to the extent that they see fit. PHMSA emphasizes the importance of “partnership” between the federal government and local bodies in regulating pipelines, and in reality, the short-staffed agency relies heavily upon these partners.

Of critical relevance to the decisions that the York and Antelope County Boards will be making, PHMSA’s regulations do nothing to guide pipeline companies in the siting of their pipelines (except in High Consequence Areas). That responsibility falls to the state, and counties are more than able to put into place their own zoning requirements. It truly is the responsibility of local governments to install these types of siting requirements—if they do not, then no one will. As evidenced by their lack of siting regulations, PHMSA primarily focuses on structural aspects of the pipeline, not on the safe routing of pipelines. Implicitly then, PHMSA’s strategy is not to avoid risks but to try to mitigate them through engineering requirements that hopefully are sound enough to prevent spills from occurring.

I feel the need to repeat: It is absolutely imperative that Antelope and York Counties pass strong zoning regulations.

I say this both out of common sense and because the results of my senior thesis give statistical evidence to support increased attention to pipeline safety at the local level. The main focus in my research was on the impact regulations above and beyond the federal standard have in preventing pipeline spills, but I also looked at the impact other factors have in increasing or decreasing spill rates. My results demonstrate three very important things that are pertinent to York and Antelope Counties as they decide whether or not to approve strong zoning requirements:

  1. Regulations above and beyond federal standards do in fact decrease spill rates of pipelines
  2. Pipelines built in areas where they will be submerged by water are nearly 43% more likely to spill than pipelines built through solid soil
  3. Hazardous liquid pipelines (like the KXL) are much more likely to spill than natural gas pipelines—this could be because they are not as tightly regulated as natural gas pipelines and because of the inherent nature of hazardous liquids (for context, my study looked at natural gas pipelines and hazardous liquid pipelines. Hazardous liquid pipelines include “petroleum, petroleum products, or anhydrous ammonia.” For a greater detailed overview of my study, read here, and if you have further questions email me at cjohnson@boldnebraska.org).

The first result should be taken to show York and Antelope Counties that if they do put in place strong zoning measures, they will indeed be making a difference in the lives of their constituents.

The second should inform the Boards that at least one portion of these zoning requirements should be strongly focused on protecting water. This pipeline, and any other, should absolutely not be allowed to sit in water. We have been saying all along that this pipeline should not be allowed through the Ogallala Aquifer because the impact of a spill into the aquifer would be extremely devastating. But we now know that the risk of a spill even occurring in the first place is greater if the pipeline is built through these high water tables.

The result demonstrating the higher propensity of hazardous liquid lines to spillage simply demonstrates that the KXL needs to be taken seriously at the local level because as part of a larger class of hazardous liquid pipelines, it is not adequately regulated at the federal level.

York and Antelope Counties, and the other counties along the route, have the power to do what PHMSA does not—take a risk avoidance approach to the KXL. Relying on structural integrity of pipelines has not gone well for people living with pipelines running through their property. In addition to several major, well-publicized spills like the tar sands spills in the Kalamazoo River and in the Mayflower, Arkansas suburbs, there were over 1,000 pipeline spills in 2011 alone. In the absence of sound structural integrity, the best we can do is try to avoid the greatest risks. Looking only at the results of my study, I can say that this means not building the pipeline through water. But it undoubtedly also means not building it through corrosive soils, or near a family’s back door. As I’ve already said it twice, and third time’s the charm:

It is absolutely imperative that Antelope and York Counties pass strong zoning regulations.

Take Action

Information for attending the York County Commissioner’s Meeting is located here. Please send an email to the York County Board in support of regulations and resolution opposing tarsands pipelines. You can read more about the resolution here.

Information for attending the Antelope County Zoning Board’s Public Hearing is located here.

(For more information as to how I conducted the study, read here, and if you have further questions email me at cjohnson@boldnebraska.org). 

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