“A pipeline owned by the same company behind Dakota Access leaked 55,000 gallons of gasoline into a major river, endangering the drinking water of six million people…”
“A pipeline managed by Sunoco logistics burst Thursday night after heavy rainfall in Pennsylvania. The spill dumped 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run, a tributary of the Loyalsock Creek that drains into the Susquehanna River…”
The Susquehanna had previously been declared the third most endangered river in the US by the NGO American Rivers. It has come under threat due to the development of the natural gas industry, particularly the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Fracking has caused major problems in the US due to the so-called “Cheney’s loophole” that exempts natural gas companies from the vast majority of US environmental regulations. Many other rivers in the US are endangered by fracking…”
So reported the earth-conscious altruists at TrueActivist.com in the aftermath of a pipeline rupture in northern Pennsylvania in the early morning hours of last Friday, Oct. 21. The environmental sensationalism reeked of activist inflation immediately but I generally pushed it aside until the story was posted again by a friend on Facebook and I felt compelled to dig into it a little and do the math.
First, as a note on gasoline contamination: it’s far from the worst thing out there to spill into waterways. Gasoline is a complex mixture of chemicals which all move in different directions once introduced to the environment, becoming more dilute, evaporating, forming new compounds and generally breaking down quickly. A high concentration of substantial duration is generally required to even assess toxicity. And it probably sounds like 55,000 gallons dumped into a little stream like Loyalsock Creek fits the bill right?
This is where math comes in. Around 7 inches of rain fell on the Loyalsock watershed late on the night of the 20th into the early hours of the 21st. “Discharge” is the amount of water in a fluvial system passing a given point in a given amount of time. It’s generally given in cubic feet per second (cfs) or cubic meters per second (cms); it’s like “volume,” but in motion. In the early hours of the 21st, the babbling brook known as Loyalsock Creek discharged a torrential 30,000 cfs of muddy water, trees and small mammals, a very wet landslide. Twelve miles or so below the spill it merged with the West Branch of the Susquehanna River which was discharging about 40,000 of its own cfs at the time, a total of about 70,000 cfs below the confluence. In cubic feet, the 55,000 gallon spill was about 7,400. Almost ten times this much water and mud passed any given point downstream in any given second of the next several hours. This is unrecognizably dilute. Many media sources, in the days following stated that there is no contamination at this time but that monitoring was ongoing. Monitoring for what? The bucketful of errant gasoline was essentially, gone. Sorry activists, there won’t be any heart-wrenching photos of oil-lathered otters and baby birds. The lesson here: Let the math precede your rage against industry.
For my part, I’d like to extend a big thank-you on behalf of fish and other aquatic organisms to the good people at Sunoco; thanks for doing what it took, during a historic deluge,
to climb down into the flooding Loyalsock Valley and get the break under control. Thanks for installing the technology that alerted you immediately when pressure dropped and there was a problem. Thanks, even though none of your aims are really altruistic. It just happens to protect profits to spill as little as possible and get repairs taken care of in a timely manner.
There’s a good lesson somewhere here too, I think about the world-view cultivated by a hatred of industry and Americanism, but out of time for today.