Heavy Rains and Risks to Pipelines
For many cities in the Eastern U.S., flash flood warnings and road closings characterized the summer of 2018. Now, hurricane season is upon us.
It’s been the wettest summer to date for Williamsport PA, Luray VA, and Baltimore MD. Several places set records for the wettest “year-through-August,” including Harrisburg PA and Wilmington NC. Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh are just two of many cities to reach their average yearly total rainfall with a third of the year left.
With the record-breaking rains come record-breaking floods, signaling devastation for local officials, residents, and… pipeline operators.
In June, construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia was suspended after heavy rainfall made it difficult for construction crews to control erosion. A landslide caused an explosion on the Leach Xpress Pipeline in West Virginia. The pipeline was built on a steep slope, and the weather made for challenging conditions to remediate the blast.
Then came the explosion of the Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County just this week on September 10th. Fire from the blast destroyed a house, a barn, two garages, several vehicles, six high tension electric towers, and shut down a section of a highway. Thankfully, residents were able evacuate their homes in time and no injuries were reported.
While the explosion is still under investigation, the cause of the explosion is believed to be a landslide, which occurred following days of heavy rain.
How rain affects pipelines
Heavy rain can cause the ground to shift and swell, triggering devastating landslides, damaging pipelines, and creating leaks. Flooding can also make it difficult for crews to locate sites of leaks and repair pipelines.
Storms cause problems during pipeline construction, as well. Work areas and trenches can alter the flow of floodwaters and spill water onto farmland or backyards. At drilling sites, rain water can carry spills of bentonite, a drilling mud, into waterways.
Still, pipeline operators continue to plan and build along steep slopes, landslide prone areas, and through floodways and waterways. For instance, the route of Shell’s proposed Falcon Pipeline, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, passes through many areas that are crucial for managing heavy rains.
Risks along the Falcon route
As highlighted by a recent Environmental Health News piece to which we contributed, Falcon’s route passes through 25 landslide prone areas, a few of which are in residential neighborhoods. In fact, one landslide-prone portion of the pipeline is just 345 feet from a home.
In Beaver County alone, the pipeline route passes through 21,910 square feet of streams, 455,519 square feet of floodway, and 60,398 square feet of wetland:
What can be done to prevent pipeline leaks, explosions, and spills?
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, robust plans are in the works to protect oil and gas infrastructure. In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey suspended a large portion of oil and gas operations in Texas. Now, the state has a $12 billion publicly-funded plan to build a barrier along the coast. The 60-mile-long structure would consist of seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates, and steel levees. It will protect homes and ecosystems, as well as one of the world’s largest sites of petrochemical activity.
In July, the state fast-tracked $3.9 billion for three storm barriers around oil facilities. The industry is also moving inland to the Ohio River Valley, where it intends to build a petrochemical hub away from hurricane risk.
Herein lies the irony of the situation: The oil and gas industry is seeking refuge from the problems it is worsening.
Weather events are intensified by rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Scientists have reached a consensus on what’s causing these rises: increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane), released by burning fossil fuels. Protecting oil and gas infrastructure will allow the industry to continue polluting, thereby amplifying the problem.
In the short term, I suggest better protection of floodplains and waterways to keep residents and the environment safe. Accounting for frequent, heavy rains will help pipeline operators develop better erosion and sediment control plans. More protections for landslide prone areas near homes could save human and animal lives.
However, continuing to spend time, resources, and money to protect infrastructure from problems that the fossil fuel industry is exacerbating isn’t logical. Renewable energy will slow the effects of climate change that intensify weather events. Resources such as solar and wind also come with significantly less risk of explosion. Let’s be logical, now.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist
As you mentioned, heavy rain can cause for the ground to swell, triggering landslides thus damaging pipelines. We live in an area where the is a monsoon season every year. Is there anything we can do to protect our pipelines from being damaged?
The optimal solution is to build an energy system less reliant on pipelines, as they present inherent risks. Our analyses have found that the most frequent cause for distribution pipeline incidents is outside force or damage (things like landslides). We are not engineers (who could provide insight on best practices), but one step is to not build pipelines on steep slopes, in landslide-prone regions, through areas prone to soil erosion, through karst topography, through undermined and heavily drilled land, and in wetlands and streams that help soak up heavy rain. Larger setback distances between pipelines and buildings/homes and better regulation & enforcement by government agencies are also important steps for protecting communities.
I didn’t even think about how storms could cause problems during pipeline construction. It makes sense though. Heavy rain can make it difficult.