A different type of oil could soon be flowing through East Texas with the approval of the controversial TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline. But could it put residents and first responders at risk?
The pipeline is slated to transport tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. At this time, the only operational section is from Cushing, OK to the Gulf Coast. The remaining portion is awaiting approval by the U.S. State Department and The White House.
Safety is still a top concern for many now that oil is flowing in the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The group Public Citizen published a report alleging approximately 70 anomalies along the Keystone segment in East Texas.
TransCanada responded to the claim to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration that they are using "significantly higher standards and has conducted inspection and testing to standards that are not currently typical of the pipeline industry."
Public Citizen also says TransCanada should provide first responders information on what exactly is flowing in the pipelines.
"This isn't your granddaddy's crude," said Tom 'Smitty' Smith, with Public Citizen Texas. "It's far more toxic, far more corrosive and far more abrasive than crude and the first responders and others just aren't prepared."
TransCanada said in an interview in Late January, this pipeline will be no different than any other.
"Oil is oil," said spokesperson Shawn Howard. "What the protestors call tar sands is a heavy oil, and this pipeline is designed to carry light oil and heavy oil."
East Texas first responders say they are notified of the type of oil that is flowing, but are not made aware of additives that are in the pipeline along with the oil.
As for response if something does go wrong with the pipeline, first responders say they only contain a spill and let the pipeline operators handle the rest.
"There's nobody that has the equipment and knowledge that the pipeline companies have," said Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale.
MAYFLOWER OIL SPILL
One city that knows what can go wrong with pipelines is the community of Mayflower, Arkansas.
"It's not normal to see crude oil running down a street," said Faulkner County, Ark. County Judge Allen Dodson.
His county was the site of a major pipeline rupture in 2013. The Exxon-Mobil Pegasus Pipeline carried oil, reportedly similar to that expected to flow in the Keystone XL, through Arkansas and East Texas to the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil flowed down the streets of the Northwoods neighborhood in Mayflower forcing residents to evacuate. Some who left their homes, never returned.
"The oil got up under the foundation and Exxon eventually bought the homes," Dodson said. "[Exxon] removed the homes, dug under them and got the oil out of there and tested down to levels acceptable."
The spill in Mayflower measured nearly a mile in length, stopping near a major recreational fishing lake.
Residents in the city suffered short-term health effects of the spill, but Dodson said the shift now is to help with the long-term recovery.
"From what [the Arkansas Dept. of Health] told us they didn't expect any long term effects from the vapors, but they saw short term effects and that's what they expected," Dodson said. "One of the things [Ark. Dept. of Health] expressed concern over was the potential for mental and emotional trauma PTSD and things of that nature."
Mayflower has all visible oil removed, but booms still remain just in case any remnants surface, nearly a year after the pipeline rupture.
Judge Dodson said after the rupture in his county he is now looking into buying and pre-positioning special supplies, should the worst hit his community again.
"Pre-positioning some trailers with these types of materials and supplies, spill response outfits, little Jon boats with trolling motors that allow you to take boom across large bodies of water," he said. "I think that's something everybody should to look at."
Smith County said they have boom stored and ready to use if a pipeline were to break in the area.
First responders and those with Public Citizen all agree pipeline is the appropriate transportation method for hazardous materials, but all say it should be done safely.
As for the overall safety of the Keystone XL Pipeline, time will tell if it passes the ultimate test: when tar sands begin flowing across East Texas.
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