Exploding Homes

I was back home in the Chicago area for the holidays last week. My parents happened to mention that a house in their community had recently exploded. That’s right. Exploded.

They live in Homer Glen, a far southwest suburb of Chicago.

According to local news reports, in the afternoon of December 15 residents near 143rd and Parker began reporting the “rotten egg” smell associated with a natural gas leak. NICOR, the natural gas distribution company that services much of northern Illinois, began alerting residents, asking them to evacuate their homes. One home exploded around 4:30pm, injuring two residents, and destroying the house.

A photograph posted on the “Homer Glen Home Explosion Fund.” Source unknown.

Over a dozen homes in the area were evacuated in subsequent days as NICOR worked to identify and cap the natural gas leak, and restore distribution.

I have been unable to find information as to what exactly caused the leak and explosion.

When I was searching for information about the incident, I also found a news report from this past October describing a separate natural gas explosion at a home in Romeoville, another far southwestern suburb just west of Homer Glen. Two townhouses were destroyed, and two NICOR workers who were repairing the gas leak were injured. The report notes that the exact cause of the leak and explosion were under investigation.

Last month, a natural gas explosion killed a power company employee who was working to fix a ruptured gas line in Canton, IL.

 

 

 

Work under the fossil fuel regime

For communities in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, coal mining has sustained local economies for multiple generations. Priorities within the current regime of fossil fuel production and consumption have shifted in recent years, however, with increasing emphasis on natural gas.

Many mines have decreased operations or even closed, leading to unemployment and economic uncertainty. Donald Trump tapped into this anxiety with promises of restoring jobs in coal and energy production, railing against “job-killing” regulations. But many wonder if putting coal miners back to work is possible.

As NPR notes, “The market of coal consumers is rapidly shrinking as utilities convert to natural gas. In 2008, coal-fired plants produced 48 percent of the country’s electricity. Last year, it was down to 33 percent.”

Part of this shift is due to air pollution regulations that have encouraged natural gas as an alternative to coal, but it’s also due to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing technologies and the increase in unconventional energy production.

Across the Ohio River from Powhatan Transportation Center – owned by Murray Energy – is a power plant that services mines in West Virginia. (NPR)

 

Belle Fourche pipeline rupture

The Associated Press has a nice primer on the recently discovered rupture of the Belle Fourche pipeline in North Dakota. Among other details, the article compares the Belle Fourche to the Dakota Access pipeline, which has been the target of protest at Standing Rock and elsewhere.

The Belle Fourche is a 6-inch steel “gathering” pipeline built in the 1980s to transport oil to collection points, where it then “moves into larger pipelines or railroad tankers destined for refineries across the U.S.”

The Dakota Access is a 30-inch steel “transmission” pipeline that will carry 20 million gallons of oil daily some 1,200 miles to a shipping point in Illinois.

Debate over the Dakota Access project has centered on pipeline safety, especially risks to water supplies. Advocates argue that pipelines are safer than other transportation options, such as truck or rail.

Pipeline leak in ND

A pipeline leak was recently discovered just a couple hours drive from a camp where protesters are challenging construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For more details, see:

According to the report, more than 176,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from the Belle Fourche Pipeline into the Ash Coulee Creek. The leak was discovered on December 5 by a landowner near the city of Belfield and was contained soon after by Wyoming-based True Cos., the company which operates the pipeline. True Cos. operates three pipeline companies with 1,648 miles of line in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Electronic monitoring equipment failed to detect the Belle Fourche Pipeline leak. The 6-inch steel pipeline was built in the 1980s and is mostly underground. The spill migrated almost 6 miles from the point where leak originated.

The report states that “True Cos. has a history of oil field–related spills in North Dakota and Montana, including a January 2015 pipeline break into the Yellowstone River. The 32,000-gallon spill temporarily shut down water supplies in the downstream community of Glendive, Montana, after oil was detected in the city’s water treatment system.”

True Cos. has reported 36 spills since 2006, totaling 320,000 gallons of petroleum products.

Pipeline Protest in Texas

Last week, two people chained themselves to the entrance of an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) pipeline-construction site in Alpine, Texas, the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline in running through Texas, called the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, will transport natural gas into Mexico. Opponents have fought the Trans-Pecos for the past two years.

For a detailed discussion, see:

The action, inspired in part by the protest at Standing Rock, illustrates the diverse array of social and environmental conflicts along the existing and expanding network of pipeline infrastructure in the United States.

trans_pecos_pipeline_img

Opponent of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. (Sasha von Oldershausen/The Nation)

Pipeline accidents over 30 years

Pipeline safety has been part of the growing national discussion about energy transportation infrastructure. Critics argue that oil and gas pipelines introduce new environmental hazards. Proponents counter that pipelines are safer than other forms of energy transportation, such as trains or trucks. Ultimately, it comes down to the level of risk we are willing to live with as part of the contemporary fossil-fuel based energy regime.

Using data from federal sources, CityLab has attempted to map accidents or incidents that have occurred along the U.S. network of oil and gas pipelines over the past 30 years. The maps provide an interesting perspective on hazard and risk within oil and gas distribution networks.

George Joseph, “30 Years of Oil and Gas Pipeline Accidents, Mapped.” CityLab, November 30, 2016.

A fire caused by an natural gas pipeline accident roars through San Runa, California. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

 

 

Oil Pipeline Under Lake Michigan

The protest at Standing Rock and the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline has focused attention on pipelines and the vast network of infrastructure which enables fossil fuel extraction and production. These issues are not new, and an important question is why Standing Rock galvanized so much attention and concern, when similar conflicts related to development, environmental hazards, property rights, and native sovereignty often remain ignored.

Here is a news story related to an existing, 60-year-old pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy that passes under Lake Michigan.

The pipeline enters Wisconsin in Superior and then runs across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and along the shoreline of Lake Michigan before crossing  into the lower part of Michigan. Enbridge operates a recently upgraded pumping station near Mackinaw City, Michigan.

A major oil leak from the pipeline along the shore of Lake Michigan would have significant environmental health consequences. The National Wildlife Federation has spearheaded a lawsuit challenging the 2013 approval of a “spill response plan” by federal regulators. According to the article, “Enbridge has a history of relatively minor spills in Wisconsin and a major one from another line a few years ago near Marshall, Michigan.”

The Enbridge Energy pumping station near Mackinaw City, Michigan. Chuck Quirmbach/WPR