Exxon spill in Montana: lessons for Cameroon?

A member of the Blackfeet Tribe takes 'water' samples for a community hospital water lab near Cut Bank Creek, Mont. Photo: Destini Vaile/AP

On July 1 an ExxonMobil underground pipeline ruptured near Laurel, Montana, spilling tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. Montana is a long way from Africa, but this spill has me thinking about the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, another ExxonMobil underground pipeline that passes below several rivers where water pressure and erosion are real concerns.

The 30 meter wide pipeline easement is supposed to be kept cleared at all times. This pipeline marker was buried under thick brush in clear violation of safety regulations. Photo by Christiane Badgley

Environmentalists in Cameroon and Chad have long been concerned about the safety of the 1070 km Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline and have stated repeatedly that COTCO (ExxonMobil pipeline operations in Cameroon) has not provided reliable information about its real capacity to respond in the event of an oil spill. Much of the pipeline crosses relatively remote and hard-to-access areas (few or no roads) and many question COTCO’s assertions that response teams could quickly travel to the scene of any incident.

It appears that officials in Montana also believe they were given erroneous information about the safety of the pipeline and the capacity of the pipeline operator to shut down the flow of oil in the event of a spill.

A few days after the spill Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, accused ExxonMobil of misleading state officials on the pipeline’s safety. According to a story that ran on MSNBC:

Schweitzer….said the oil giant had assured Montana that any spill on the Yellowstone River could be shut off in a few minutes.

Instead it took nearly an hour for that to happen when a pipeline ruptured on July 1, releasing an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the longest undammed river in the U.S.

“We were told that there were automatic shut off valves and that it’s not possible that it could run even a couple of minutes into the river before it shut off,” Schweitzer told MSNBC, recalling how the state and Exxon Mobil ran a mock drill on the river last year.

Once the spill happened, “Exxon Mobil said to begin with that it had only run for six minutes and that it was controlled out of Houston, Texas,” he added. “That grew to 30 minutes and then it’s unclear if they’re now saying 48 or 58 minutes.”

U.S. Department of Transportation records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel at 10:40 p.m. local time. Emergency responders at the National Response Center were notified of the spill at 12:19 a.m.

The company said the longer timeframe did not change its estimate of how much crude entered a river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers for irrigation.

“The best thing they could do at this point is be completely honest,” said Schweitzer. “It is clear that their veracity has not been 100 percent to this point.”

The oil flow on the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline is also controlled remotely. ExxonMobil claims that in the event of a spill, the oil flow will be quickly shut off and clean-up crews rapidly dispatched to the affected area. As I said above, environmentalists in Chad and Cameroon have disputed these claims. Additionally, they contend that COTCO and the Cameroonian government have insufficient material and personnel to respond to any incident. (The same holds true in Chad. I’m focusing on Cameroon as nearly 90% of the pipeline is in Cameroon.)

As of September 8th, more than two months after the Montana spill, clean-up efforts involving hundreds of contractors are still ongoing. According to a story from Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown:

Exxon Mobil workers through Thursday had finished work on most river segments marred with crude from the July 1 pipeline break near Laurel, said Steve Merritt, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator for the spill.

That includes 51 of the 61 river segments with heavy or moderate amounts of oil, Merritt said. There is no acreage or mileage figure for the impacted area, which includes riverbank, islands and side channels stretching along 97 miles of river ending near Hysham.

Detailing the clean-up efforts to date, Brown adds:

An estimated 620 Exxon Mobil contractors are working along dozens of miles of riverbank that were fouled by oil from the spill. That’s down from more than 1,000 workers at the peak of the cleanup.

The number of federal employees overseeing the effort peaked at 25 people in early July.

In the event of a similar incident in Cameroon, it would be hard to imagine such a response. Even if COTCO were willing to throw maximum resources at a spill, it would be extremely difficult to dispatch a thousand people to the Cameroonian rainforest during rainy season, for example, when dirt roads are often impassible and washed out bridges are a common occurrence.

Another article by Brown dated August 23rd and reprinted in iwatch news indicates that the Montana spill will cost Exxon Mobil $42 million:

About 42,000 gallons, or 1,000 barrels, of crude leaked into the waterway upstream of Billings, the state’s most populous city, when the pipeline buried under the scenic river broke on July 1. If the cost figure holds, the accident will cost Exxon more than $1,000 for every gallon spilled.

Exxon Mobil’s cost estimate includes $40 million for emergency response work and $2.5 million for damage to public and private property. The company valued the lost oil at $100,000, according to documents submitted to federal pipeline regulators and obtained by The AP through a public information request.

The documents also revealed that officials from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration relied on information from Exxon Mobil to reassure local officials that the 20-year-old pipeline would be able to hold up as the river flooded in late May and early June. The pipeline failure occurred during a second round of flooding a month later.

Despite reports of erosion along the riverbank where the company’s Silvertip pipeline crossed the Yellowstone, a federal safety official said on June 1 that surveys by Exxon Mobil showed the line was buried at least five feet beneath the riverbed.

“The Yellowstone River crossing depth was surveyed last fall and is quite deep and should be adequate as long as the riverbank does not substantially erode and cause flooding in Riverside Park near Laurel,” PHMSA’s Thomas Finch wrote in an email to Kurt Markegard, director of public works for the city of Laurel.

The Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline crosses no fewer than 25 rivers. Water levels in many of those rivers have been fluctuating with climate change: southern Cameroon has experienced record flooding in recent years while the north is increasingly subject to drought. The pipeline, now 10 years old, will likely be operational for at least another 20 years.

Shortly after I began working on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline story, a former employee of one of the pipeline construction companies contacted me about what he claimed were serious safety violations that occurred during construction. He spoke of worker safety violations, most notably the lack of sufficient eye protection for welding crews (see page 20 of this AFRODAD report for a mention of welders who lost their sight). He also cited a number of cost-cutting shortcuts that, in his opinion, seriously undermine the safety of the pipeline, especially over the long-term.

He told me that he notified his superiors of safety violations to no avail. Disgusted, he quit his job on the pipeline and has spent endless hours over the past ten years writing to Exxon Mobil, the World Bank Group, the British government (he’s from England), European Union officials, etc. He has been banging on doors for years, but none of his complaints have been investigated.  He has sent me detailed lists of everything he says was done wrong, photos and copies of letters sent to various officials, hoping that I will be able to do something to bring attention to his allegations.

Verifying his complaints is not simple: the pipeline is buried and COTCO officials refuse to speak. However, others have examined some of the issues he raises and their findings corroborate his allegations. Jeremy Keenan, a professor at SOAS, wrote an article for the Review of African Political Economy in 2005 that discusses a number of serious safety violations along the pipeline.  The following passages from his article indicate that the installation of shut-down valves at river crossings along the pipeline is not up to international standards.

Emergency Shut-down Valves (ESDVs):

International regulations (and US Standards) require that ESDVs are installed at ‘strategic’ locations, including both sides of major river crossings in order to protect drinking water resources from the threat of oil pollution. The pipeline crosses some 25 rivers, 17 of which ExxonMobil has identified as being ‘major’.

ExxonMobil states that 48 Main Line Valves (MLVs) have been installed along the length of the pipeline, including at both sides of the 17 major rivers. The importance of having MLVs on both sides of the river is to prevent back-siphoning into the river in the event of pipeline rupture or other such accident. However, an examination of ExxonMobil’s table of MLV locations reveals that only 28 of the 48 valve stations are in fact MLVs, as mandatorily required. The remaining 20 are listed as being ‘Check Valves’, which are not a substitute for MLVs. Senior site engineers have stated that ExxonMobil installed valves on only one side of the rivers. This would appear to be born out by an examination of ExxonMobil’s MLV locations inrelation to river crossings,12 which reveals that of the 17 major rivers, only 5 rivers have valves on both sides (or near both sides). However, 5 of these 10 valves are Check Valves. Assuming that MLV location data is correct, this means that only one of the 25 or so rivers crossed by the pipeline, the Nyong River, would appear to be properly protected by ESDVs as required by international regulations.

Further examination of ExxonMobil’s MLV location data suggests that the remaining MLVs have been placed randomly and not strategically, as man- datorily required. For example, there is not a single MLV in the first (Chad end) 137 kms of the pipeline.

Furthermore, 7 of the MLVs are listed as being manually operated. In the event of a disaster, an entire pipeline should be able to be shut down in 10-15 minutes. With manually operated MLVs this is almost certainly impossible, especially if accessibility to many parts of the pipeline, as site engineers claim, is not easy. Indeed, in the event of a major storm, ground access may be precluded and helicopters be grounded, thus delaying access to manually operated MLVs for some time.

The cost saving of not installing the MLVs would have been considerable. Of the 48 MLVs that ExxonMobil claims to have installed, only 28 are in fact MLVs. The remaining 20 are Check Valves. In addition to this shortfall of 20 MLVs, 12 of the 17 major rivers have only one valve of any sort, making a total shortfall of at least 32 MLVs. The total cost of a valve station, which, in addition to the valve, involves the installation of such things as air conditioning, fibre optic cable connections, electronic systems, satellite communication, etc., is considerable and can run into millions of dollars. Project engineers have estimated that properly equipped MLV stations can cost as much as $10-15 million. This could give a saving of $320-480 million – not far short of Cameroon’s total revenues for the project over the next 25 years!

Proof of the absence of MLVs can be obtained by simple ocular inspection. Although the project’s website and ExxonMobil’s many published docu- ments contain hundreds of ‘happy-snap’ photographs of the project, neither ExxonMobil nor the World Bank’s IAG appear to have produced a concise photographic record of the project through its design, construction and completed works stage. This apparent omission is surprising for a project this size ($4.2 bn), the largest public-private development partnership in Africa.

Keenan’s article also details a number of other safety violations, but concerning the shut-down valves, it’s important to remember that Cameroonians living near the pipeline route depend on river water. According to a University of Michigan study, “Even one leak would endanger communities all along the pipeline route because they rely on surface water systems for most of their water needs.”

The controversial Lom Pangar Dam* project will soon add an additional threat to the safety of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. The Cameroonian government recently awarded the contract to build the dam to a Chinese firm, the China International Water and Electric Corporation (CWE) and construction should soon get underway. This dam, which has been on the drawing board for well over a decade and controversial since day one, will flood between 5 and 25 km of the pipeline (length of pipeline flooded varies from report to report). Initially the re-routing of 25 km of the pipeline was envisioned, but later studies seem to give preference to a plan to reinforce the segments of the pipeline that would be underwater after the dam’s completion.  As is often the case, getting information from COTCO or the Cameroonian government is difficult. At this point, I have been unable to obtain further details on either the proposed reinforcement or relocation of the pipeline. Nor have I been able to find out anything about the cooperation between the CWE and COTCO.

The Montana spill ought to be wake up call for Cameroonian officials. The slower than expected shut down time, the longer and more costly than expected clean-up, the damage caused by flooding to a pipeline reported to be safe only a month before its rupture – all of this should prompt Cameroon to verify the status of shut down valves along the pipeline route, to review the monitoring system and to inspect the pipeline in areas where flooding has occurred.

* The European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank and the World Bank are all considering loans to Cameroon to help finance the Lom Pangar Dam project.







One Response to “Exxon spill in Montana: lessons for Cameroon?”

  1. […] that time, I asked if the Montana spill had lessons for Cameroon. The current report points to a number of issues that also concern the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, such […]

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