A few years ago, I was a self employed environmental consultant. I worked on the environmental side only, mostly for unions and local grassroots groups. I beat back some big power plant proposals. I killed a copper mine. I stymied a federal giveaway of 10 miles of riverfront land to a Texas construction company.
Then a former leader of a pro-salmon environmental group, who now ran a public relations firm, called me. I met her.
“We are supporting the construction and operation of a new 200-mile-long pipeline that would carry gasoline from the refineries, to the isolated areas of the state,” she explained, “The existing pipeline only goes part way, and river barges carry that gasoline the last 200 miles to the markets. The barges have spilt gasoline into the River, harming the endangered species. We’d like to hire you to aid our efforts to replace the barges with a new pipeline.”
So far, so good. I’d be helping eliminate a toxic threat to the River. I agreed. My first assignment was to research the barge company’s environmental record.
I made Freedom of Information request to an uncooperative Coast Guard, and also reviewed State environmental agency records. The barge company had one big, 3000 gallon spill, which they weren’t able to contain because of the River’s current, and their failure to adequately containment booms near the spill area. And every time the barge company hooked and unhooked the pipes that filled and emptied the barges, they risked small spills, usually less than 100 gallons at a time. Several dozen times, the hook-ups leaked gasoline into the River. Some spills were never reported to the State. Few spills were ever punished.
My research elated the PR Firm. Half their battle was to disparage the current practice of barging the gasoline, and I’d struck gold for them. They offered to put me on a substantial monthly retainer. I took it.
My next duty was to enlist the unions in support. The oil companies pushing the pipeline weren’t dedicated to union labor. I insisted each of the 4 companies send a representative with me to the union hall. We met the union leaders, who took us on a tour of their extensive apprenticeship program, conducted in a 200,000 sq. foot building as big as some community colleges.
“Geez,” said “Tex,” from one of the oil companies, picking up a section of welded pipe,”your guys sure do good welding.’
The union leader scoffed,”We failed the guy that made those welds. We insist on better work. Our apprentices are in a 5-year program.”
Tex shook his head,”Nobody at our tank farms can weld that good.” The tank farms are multi-acre sites containing dozens of storage tanks and processing equipment, that hold tens of millions of gallons of oil products, Tex was impressed.
A few weeks later, the unions and the oil companies agreed to build the pipeline all-union. The unions also began getting some maintenance work at the tank farms.
Meanwhile, the Barge company hired the best (and most expensive) environmental-side attorney in three states, who busily contacted his former environmental clients and formed them into an Astroturf anti-pipeline group, the Citizens Against the Pipeline (CAP), lavishly funded by the barge company.
The oil companies filed their pipeline application, and then the public hearing process began. The State environmental agencies scheduled a half-dozen meetings near every large community along the pipeline route.
The evening before the first meeting, I met with the PR firm CEO and her fresh-faced, young eager minions, and the oil company executives.
When Big Oil is picking up the check, I eat darned good, and ended up drinking a few too many gin and tonics at that dinner meeting.
We were discussing our plans for the public hearing when the gin started speaking.
“you know what, you know what’s the most important thing,” I blurted, a little too loud,” Don’t let your existing pipeline blow … blow up! Don’t let it leak! Not while these damn hearings are going on – don’t let the m-----r spill!”
The younger PR employees looked shocked. Everyone was embarrassed at my outburst, and the oil execs hurried to assure me they would be careful. I slept off the gin in a luxury motel room that night.
The public hearings were great carnival events. The Barge’s front group had their T-shirts, their colored buttons, their slogans and banners.
We wanted to “Save the Salmon” and “Get the oil off the River.” They wanted “No pipeline through our mountains” and “Keep big oil out of our forests.”
They turned out big crowds, mostly of well-meaning environmentalists. We turned out big crowds, mostly of union folks.
The hearings went on for months. We finessed some of the hearings by talking the agency into holding an “open house” instead, so opponents couldn’t mount the soapbox and rally their troops with public comments.
The agency issued a draft environmental impact statement so we were hungry for more information to submit in our comments. I decided to review more recent public records on the barge company. All they had on us was a 10-year-old pipeline spill, and all we had on them was their 5-year-old barge spill, plus a dozen smaller, more recent leaks.
I was thinking, that given the lengthy of the permitting process, the agency’s decision may ultimately be based on which transport method had the most recent serious spill; the pipeline or the barge.
I struck pay dirt again in the barge company’s agency records. A barge had recently been unloading gasoline into a storage tank late one night. For some reason, the overflow alarm on the storage tank had not sounded, and the barge kept pumping and pumping gasoline into an already-filled million-gallon storage tank. The gasoline overflowed and began to form a pond in the bermed-in multi-acre tank farm site.
I do not know why none of the barge crew or tank farm operators did not smell gasoline sooner, before 10s of thousands of gallons pooled up on the ground. One spark. One match. One cigarette, and the tank farm and tens of millions of gasoline could have exploded, wiping out a nearby highway, every passing vehicle, and the adjacent rest stop.
I thought, we have them now. While the barge company lucked out, with no explosion or fire, it was a huge spill, and although contained within the tank farm, there were thousands of yards of contaminated soils to excavate. The publicity would damage the barge company.
I reported this news to the PR firm. Over the next few days I typed up my notes, ordered copies of the records, and plotted how to expose the barge company’s big spill to maximum advantage at the next public hearing.
But events years earlier had predestined the next events. A Canadian construction company, whose workers belonged to a “Christian Labor Union,” had underbid more established companies for work along the route of the existing pipeline. They had carelessly excavated for a sewer plant foundations.
I had the TV on without the sound, when the picture filled with roaring flames. I turned the sound on. The existing gasoline pipeline had leaked, owned by the companies I was supporting. The horrors mounted. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline spilled into a creek. The fumes overwhelmed and killed a man who was fly-fishing. Then the gasoline exploded, burning two ten-year-old children to death.
The National Pipeline Safety Board eventually ruled that years earlier, the Canadian construction company’s excavation efforts had nicked the gasoline pipeline, weakening it.
The oil companies I worked for, had been periodically testing the entire length of their existing pipeline. The electronic testing revealed the weakness from the excavation damage, but it seemed slight, and did not meet typical “must repair” criteria.
Nonetheless, despite my drunken warning, Tex had cancelled plans to repair those pipeline defects.
The regulatory agencies levied millions in fines against the pipeline owners. Tex, the guy I knew the most at the oil companies, he went to prison. Two other pipeline operators, and their companies, faced felony charges.