FAA Impeding Aerial Coverage of Spill Damages

Dilbit comes home to Suburban Arkansas

Roughly a half million gallons of toxic and carcinogenic petrochemicals spilled from a 1940’s-era pipeline, forcing the evacuation of dozens of homeowners in Mayflower, AR. mayflower-spill-pic-replace-deadlinkThe 20-inch diameter Pegasus pipeline is owned by ExxonMobil and runs from  Patoka, IL to the Texas Gulf Coast. Two other high-profile pipeline accidents in recent years are the July 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and the July 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline failure which polluted the Yellowstone River, in Montana.

Dilbit is ‘diluted bitumen’. Bitumen is the thick, gooey mass mined from the Alberta tar sands. It is so thick it will not flow unless it is first mixed with ‘diluent’. Water does not chemically mix with oil, so the diluent contains naptha, benzene, and various other light and volatile hydrocarbons. The important thing to the oil industry is that this slurry mixture, when heated and pressurized, allows the tarry bitumen to flow quickly through pipelines. The danger to people, though, is that many of the diluent chemicals are also carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and potentially fatal. All of these compounds are easily breathed in, and they quickly evaporate into the open air if accidentally released.

Throughout the history of petroleum pipelines, we have grown accustomed to leaks happening, and we always trusted the spills were fully cleaned up. But, historically, these pipeline breaches have almost always involved either crude oil or finished oil products. Today, we fail to comprehend that a dilbit spill is very different from classic pipeline accidents. Instead of one type of accident response, a dilbit spill requires two different strategies: one for the heavy bitumen, and one for the light diluent. When dilbit is accidentally released, the diluent quickly separates and evaporates into the air we breathe, while the bitumen begins to clump and settle. In a marsh area (or a riverbed, such as the Kalamazoo River in Michigan where NTSB investigated a big dilbit spill that occurred on July 25, 2010), the bitumen ‘disappears’ under the water surface and collects in the mud, where the crawdads and catfish lurk. So, if the cleanup is only superficial, millions will be spent setting up booms and pumping the surface, while pretending all has been fixed, when in fact the bitumen has only settled out of sight. Even today, residents stir up oily pollutants when they wade into damaged parts of the Kalamazoo. Check out this video of bitumen remaining at Kalamazoo, done by whistleblower John Bolenbaugh. (…just click on the photo of the greasy glove —>)

In this latest accident, in Mayflower, we have to be concerned that ExxonMobil will actually clean up all the bitumen that has settled into the marsh/swamp/bay on the southwest shore of Lake Conway. We have a larger Public Interest to see this cleanup through, but if our government aids corporations to impede news about the cleanup, the likelihood of a failed cleanup is greatly increased.

“Oh, Canada . . . ” (where have you gone?)

It is to be expected that a 1960’s kid in the Pacific Northwest, who grows up backpacking in the Cascades, should be keenly aware of the damages that can be done via forest clearcuts and other forms of resource extraction. I was a kid like that, and I always admired the Canadians for what appeared to be a strong inclination toward preserving forests and natural environments. Any country with geese and beaver on their coins just has to be green, right? So, with the recent explosion of Tar Sands development, and the endless environmental horror stories (accompanied with satellite imagery and video), I am baffled: where did Canada go? How can they be digging up an area in Alberta as large as England, polluting their waters, killing their birds, and ripping out all that forest? Decades ago, if someone had told me Canada would become a major player in global-scale environmental destruction, I would never have believed them. But, it is now 2013, and here we are; goodbye Athabasca River and Boreal Forest; hello cancer, CO2 and global warming. Canada, long known for respecting minority rights, is becoming a petro-state, with all the oppression and demise that money can buy. I have no doubt that only a few Canadians are as greedy as the ugliest Americans, but I suspect most Canadians continue to be good people as they always were …  but are increasingly afraid to speak up about the accumulating environmental destruction.

And now, FAA is impeding Media Access

The pipeline burst in the late afternoon, on Friday March 29th. News Releases by ExxonMobil state that emergency respondents were on-site within thirty minutes ‘after the leak was detected’. A Saturday news release noted the evacuation of 22 homes, as well as the deployment of 2,000 feet of boom and fifteen vacuum trucks, to contain and remove spill materials; in their March 30th news release, ExxonMobil added that 4,500 barrels of oil and water had already been removed. That was Saturday. Four days later, on Wednesday afternoon  FAA issued a TFR (temporary flight restriction). Here’s the text…

FDC 3/9344 ZME AR.. FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS MAYFLOWER, AR. EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. PURSUANT TO 14 CFR SECTION 91.137(A)(2) TEMPORARY FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS ARE IN EFFECT FOR OIL PIPELINE RUPTURE ONLY RELIEF AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS UNDER DIRECTION OF TOM SUHRHOFF ARE AUTHORIZED IN THE AIRSPACE AT AND BELOW 1000 FEET AGL WITHIN A 5 NAUTICAL MILE RADIUS OF 345855N/0922642W OR THE LITTLE ROCK /LIT/ VORTAC 319 DEGREE RADIAL AT 22.4 NAUTICAL MILES TOM SUHRHOFF TELEPHONE 713-299-2572 IS IN CHARGE OF ON SCENE EMERGENCY RESPONSE ACTIVITY. MEMPHIS /ZME/ ARTCC, TELEPHONE 901-368-8234 IS, THE FAA COORDINATION FACILITY.
[the earliest version was issued 9:12AM local time, Monday, 4/1/13 link]

Two problems with this are:

  1. first, why is FAA granting control of this airspace to an official representing ExxonMobil (and not an actual public emergency official)?
  2. and second, why is the flight restriction being initiated for an emergency response, but more than four days AFTER the actual response is largely finished?

Where is the need for any flight restriction? Why must it extend five miles from the polluted area, and why a restriction at all, when the response is done and the cleanup is all going to be on the ground, with minimal (if any) possible helicopter support?

It is bad enough that leaders in the Canadian government are allowing the destruction of pristine lands (and one of the largest remaining forests on the planet), all for the production of oil that is only accelerating climate change. For the U.S. government to aid in this process though, by allowing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, only magnifies the bad. And then, when U.S. Federal agencies such as FAA take actions designed to obstruct citizen access to imagery and other factual information about a disaster, well, so much for Democracy.

We have to be able to trust our government. If we cannot, our Democracy fails.

These recent actions by FAA, create a strong appearance that FAA exists to serve corporate interests. Less than three months ago, when the Boeing 787 batteries were catching fire and endangering passengers, FAA told us all it was safe, and allowed continued commercial use. Then, a week later, another battery fire forced an emergency landing in Japan. This led to two actions: first, Japanese authorities grounded the 787, and second, NTSB spoke up about how fires are not supposed to happen on airplanes. These two actions forced FAA’s hand, and they finally grounded all 787’s.

Can anyone explain, how can FAA ignore actual airplane fires and delay grounding the 787, then be so quick to restrict aerial images over an ExxonMobil pipeline accident (but days after the actual emergency response is finished)? This makes no sense . . . unless the real purpose of FAA is as a servant to corporate interests. Could it be?

Here are three suggestions:
  1. NTSB needs to open an investigation of the Mayflower pipeline accident, as this incident has huge significance to the pending decision on Keystone XL. NTSB did not really look at issues specific to dilbit in their 164-page Kalamazoo/Enbridge report (Kalamazoo, 7/25/10). And, our government needs to put their Keystone XL Pipeline decision on hold until AFTER NTSB releases this important investigative report about dilbit pipeline hazards.
  2. Our government needs to give us (as citizens) full transparency on the Mayflower damages and cleanup. This should include daily online HD aerial imagery, so we can see what ExxonMobil is doing to our land, our soil, our water, our air.
  3. FAA needs to produce a written explanation as to how they justified this excessive TFR, including how they can justify giving control of that airspace to an individual representing a corporate entity (Tom Suhrhoff, of ExxonMobil).
Woody Guthrie was right…

[“…this land is your land…”]

Additional info at this aiR page