Have you ever smelled gas in your neighborhood?  If so, you probably called the gas company to alert them.  That is what we’re supposed to do, right?  Then they’re supposed to send someone out to check the pipelines and make sure the area is safe.  We have procedures in place to prevent a catastrophic disaster, right?

Turns out the procedure and safety measures we’ve been taught don’t really ensure our safety.

Prior to the San Bruno Explosion in Northern California on September 9, 2010, residents had been calling PG&E, the gas utility, for weeks to complain of potentially dangerous gas odors in the community. And the residents were right. It turns out this deadly explosion was caused by a ruptured natural gas pipeline that was 40-50 years old.

Since the majority of pipelines built before 1970 are steel, corrosion is a grim reality.  According to a recent analysis by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group which was established following a 1999 explosion that killed three people in Bellingham, Washington, “Most of the older pipelines lack anticorrosion coatings that are prevalent in the industry today.”

Unfortunately, gas pipeline accidents aren’t as infrequent as one might think. According to the Associated Press, “Over the past two decades, federal officials tallied 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents nationwide — including 992 in which someone was killed or required hospitalization…  Those accidents killed 323 people and injured 1,372.”

And the problem is not limited to natural gas pipelines. We are also suffering from spills carrying crude oil.

Obviously we can’t leave it up to the big oil companies to regulate themselves.  We should have learned that from the oil spill in July.  Nope, not the one in the Gulf, but the one that dumped 800,000 gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, MI.

One of the world’s longest pipelines, running from Canada through Michigan, ruptured due to poor maintenance.  It’s owned by Enbridge, a Canadian oil company with multiple violations.  They were recently fined $2.5 million for an oil leak in Minnesota which ignited and killed two workers

As posted on Detroit Public Radio, “Federal officials had complained in January that Enbridge was not properly monitoring corrosion in the pipeline that ruptured in July in Michigan…dumping as many as one million gallons of crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.”

The destruction of wildlife is obvious.  Waterways and natural habitat destroyed.  But Marshall, MI isn’t exactly a remote area.  This oil spill posed serious health risks to the community.  Residents’ air and water were poisoned!

How can we prevent accidents like this in the future?  Should stricter regulations be placed on gas utilities?  Or should the regulators be stricter on enforcing such regulations?

This ruptured pipeline hit close to home for the residents in Detroit.  The 48217 zip code of Southwest Detroit is just about an hour and a half away from Marshall.  Marathon, the oil tycoon in Southwest Detroit, has begun construction to allow for refining of heavy crude, Canada’s tar sands.  Part of this upgrade, of course, includes a pipeline which runs dangerously close to schools, homes, even a VFW Hall.

The safety of the 48217 community is very seriously being compromised.  We’ve seen time and again the accidents that can happen from unmonitored pipelines and we’re supposed to continue trusting the oil company to monitor them?  That’s a perfect example of letting the fox guard the chicken coop!

These pipelines pose excessive risks to public health & safety.  What we need to focus on is determining how close is too close.  Obviously the pipelines were too close in San Bruno, CA and Marshall, MI. The real lesson to be learned here is the need for buffer zones between pipelines and neighborhoods.