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Pipeline Problems Cost Ohio Millions

A group of salamanders removed from the site of an oil spill in Colerain Township last month is recovering at a science museum in Dayton.Sunoco's Mid-Valley pipeline leaked 19 thousand gallons of oil into the Oak Glen Nature Preserve. The pipeline that runs from Texas to Michigan is one of the leakiest in the country. Lewis Wallace of member station WYSO in Yellow Springs reports.

In a cool, dark room in the back of the Boonshoft Museum, Mark Mazzei—the museum’s curator of live animals—introduces his latest visitors.

MM: We’re getting two species of salamanders…

Dozens of them started coming here after the oil spill. Mazzei opens up a tupperware box...there’s a brownish blackish salamander, kind of a sluggy little creature…

... [opens box] they’re not the most brightly-colored or fantastic-looking guys…

An emergency team gathered every salamander they could find, and cleaned the oil off them...Mazzei went out and helped one night…

MM: The whole creek and the whole wetland area was layered in oil.

On March 18th, Sunoco confirmed that its Mid-Valley pipeline had sprung a five-inch leak…

Dina Pierce is with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

DP: 35 thousand gallons of water and close to 19 thousand gallons of oil have been removed from the site.

She says the cause of the leak is still under investigation—for now, the line has been patched.

But this is far from the first time Sunoco’s Mid-Valley line has had problems.

Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust has had his eye on pipelines across the country for more than a decade.

CW: Sunoco seems to have almost twice as many incidents as the national average for similar liquid pipelines.

The Mid-Valley line spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers in 2005.

And every year since then, the line has had multiple incidents.

These big interstate pipelines are regulated by a federal agency known as PHMSA—the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

And federal inspections on the line...have been few and far between. But Weimer says that part is pretty normal.

CW: Now what PHMSA tells us is that they have a risk-based system, and if a company like Mid-Valley starts showing up having more problems than others they’ll pay more attention, so they’ll get more inspections. But they’re really stretched pretty thin and they keep asking Congress for more money and more personnel but they don’t seem to get it.

PHMSA, the regulators, declined a recorded interview—but a representative says they look closely at any problems.

And Jeff Shields, a spokesperson for Sunoco Pipelines, says the company is working with regulators to prevent future spills.

JS: We’re doing as much as we can under their supervision to investigate what went wrong here, are there any other issues with the line and see what we need to do to make it completely spill-free.

All spills and leaks have costs: in Ohio, pipeline problems have caused seven deaths and 70 million dollars in damages in the last ten years…

But industry advocates say pipelines are still safer than moving oil or gas by truck, or train.

And the Ohio EPA says Sunoco, at least, has been quick to respond—and to cover the costs of the cleanup...right down to room and board for the Boonshoft’s salamanders.

Mark Mazzei at the Boonshoft says they had to be removed because it’s their breeding season. This is the one time a year they come out from their underground burrows.

MM: And salamanders, especially these species of salamanders, they’re much more specific, they want to go to that creek where they were hatched out.

They would have headed right into an oil slick. Now they’re burrowed under beds of paper towel.

MM: They are definitely out of their element here.

These little burrowing brown salamanders have something in common with probably wouldn’t see them, or think about them, unless something went wrong.

Jim has been with WCBE since 1996. Before that he worked as a reporter at another Columbus radio station, and for three newspapers in Southwest Florida.
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