Exxon fails to address pipeline safety risks, fined $1.7 million


One of the many rivers that the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline crosses. Photo by Christiane Badgley

“The U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday hit Exxon Mobil Corp. with a $1.7 million fine over a July 2011 pipeline failure that dumped more than 60,000 gallons of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River after concluding the oil giant failed to effectively address pipeline safety risks,” writes Sean McLernon in the March 26th edition of Law360.

According to a news release from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), “ExxonMobil failed to properly address known seasonal flooding risks to the safety of its pipeline system, including excessive river scour and erosion, and to implement measures that would have mitigated a spill into a waterway.”

I wrote about the Yellowstone River spill in September 2011 asking what lessons the Montana accident might have for Cameroon. To recap what I said then, 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 (Exxon Mobil 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.

In Montana, as in Cameroon, remote-control valves are intended to block oil flow in the event of a pipeline leak. But it took Exxon operators in Houston nearly an hour to stop the oil flow on the Yellowstone River. The PHMSA said that although Exxon had installed remote-control valves in Montana, the company failed to properly operate the system, resulting in the 60,000 gallon spill. Read the PHMSA news release here.

As I wrote in 2011, more than 1,000 workers were involved in the Yellowstone River cleanup. 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 impassable and washed out bridges are a common occurrence.

The Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline crosses no fewer than 25 rivers. As in Montana, severe flooding has also become an increasingly common event in Cameroon. The pipeline, now over 10 years old, will likely be operational for at least another 20 years.

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.”

Read the Law360 article here.

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