The bursting of a pipe carrying oil below Montana’s Yellowstone River is a reminder of the pipelines that crisscross the country and of the particular environmental dangers that these pipelines present.
Americans are more aware of spills near the country’s coasts, which can damage coastal ecosystems and devastate regional economies. Fortunately, technology has evolved to meet the needs in deep water with slow currents. Rivers, on the other hand, are shallow, move quickly and are prone to seasonal flooding — all of which presented problems in Montana. And cleanup crews with deep-water technology are not equipped to solve the problems that rivers present.
That was the topic of a recent Popular Mechanics article, which explained that traditional oil booms would fail in the Yellowstone’s swift current. Further, the dispersants that break down oil on the ocean’s surface and carry it to microbes beneath the surface would instead create problems in a river, settling oil droplets into the riverbed.
The ability to respond to underground spills is critical, considering that pipelines cut beneath much of the country. The massive Keystone pipeline system, for instance, cuts a line from Alberta to Texas, beneath the Great Plains and above the Ogallala aquifer.
America has an appetite for oil, and companies such as Exxon (the operator of the Montana line) are responding to that need. But since spills will happen, it is paramount that technologies be developed to protect the freshwater systems from their effects.
The Daily Record, Canon City, Colo. (July 25)