EDWARDSVILLE — A crude oil spill from a broken pipeline has triggered a cleanup in and along a Madison County waterway for more than a week, with thousands of barrels of oil discharged next to a Mississippi River tributary.
Because of the spill is still under investigation. Recent history, though, shows pipeline incidents in Missouri and Illinois are most often caused by the failure of their own materials and equipment, according to government records.
Hundreds of such issues have arisen over the past two decades amid the web of pipelines that crisscross the St. Louis region.
“Those can be preventable, within reason,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of a business called Accufacts Inc., and a specialist in pipeline investigations, auditing, risk management and other related matters.
In almost 50 years of investigative work, he has “never seen a failure by a true accident,” he said. Many pipeline spills happen, he said, because of something going wrong with their operation, maintenance, or even the quality of the pipe.
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More than 163,000 gallons of oil leaked in the Edwardsville spill, officials said — the equivalent of about 3,900 barrels.
“This is a very large spill,” said Bill Caram, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit focused on pipeline safety issues. “This is more than you usually see.”
In fact, this month’s spill, first reported March 11 and already in the crosshairs of the state attorney general, is among the largest in Missouri and Illinois, trailing only nine others over the past 20 years.
Early last week—days after the oil spill was first reported to local authorities—a smell like asphalt still filled the air near Illinois Route 143 and Old Alton-Edwardsville Road. Dozens of workers were on hand, maneuvering bulldozers and excavators to scoop dirt into trucks alongside Cahokia Creek. An oily sheen was still visible on the surface of the water.
Roads in the area were closed, as was a bike trail that traverses the creek.
Lines of boom stretched across the creek at the site of the spill. Even so, some oil shimmered farther downstream. Effects were noticeable about a mile away, the US Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.
More personnel and lines of boom were stationed miles farther away, where the waterway — at that point called the Cahokia Diversion Channel — meets the Mississippi River, almost exactly at its confluence with the Missouri River. That’s just upstream of an intake for St. Louis’ municipal drinking water.
“From our indication, no oil has made it to the Mississippi,” said Jacob Hassan, an on-scene coordinator for EPA Region 5.
State and regional environmental officials were collecting samples of surface water and groundwater, to watch for changes from the spill — including checking on drinking water wells for local homes. Air monitoring was also conducted in nearby residential areas.
Some wildlife was affected. A Wednesday update listed seven ducks, three turtles, two beavers, one owl, one frog, one hawk and one snake as having been treated. Meanwhile, eight ducks, a muskrat, a heron and a frog had been found dead.
Officials said sound deterrents were used to help prevent animals from coming to the area affected by the spill.
Caram said that, although much of the oil from the spill has been recovered, the magnitude of the incident raised cause for concern.
“With a spill of this size there’s definitely a concern with the health of the entire creek, and (about) seeing down into groundwater,” he said.
Those concerns prompted Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Friday to sue the pipeline operator, saying the spill had “created a substantial danger to the environment and public health.”
The lawsuit says the pipeline was carrying highly viscous heavy crude oil at the time of the release, and orders the pipeline operator to act to ensure a “final and permanent abatement of the substantial danger to the environment and public health.” It also seeks civil penalties for environmental offences.
The ruptured pipeline belongs to Marathon Petroleum Corp., the Ohio-based owners of gas station chains and the nation’s largest refining system. The 22-inch-wide line runs from Wood River to Patoka, in central Illinois, Marathon said. (Patoka holds prominence in the energy world as the eastern terminus of the Keystone pipeline system. That system runs along the same route as Marathon’s broken line, using the same easement, Caram said.)
The accident in Edwardsville helps underscore that the St. Louis region is teeming with pipelines beneath our feet. For example, St. Charles and Madison counties are laced with pipelines leading to and from an oil refinery in the Metro East and a concentration of petroleum terminals along the Mississippi River.
Experts say pipelines are the safest way to transport substances like oil. But the region’s extensive network of pipelines also has a history of spills.
Often, they are relatively minor, concentrated around oil refineries and terminals — like those in Wood River and other industrial parts of the Metro East, or in hubs like Patoka.
But of the 432 combined incidents in Missouri and Illinois since 2020, 72 have resulted in spills of 1,000 gallons or more. And 36 of those events have exceeded 10,000 gallons of leakage, while 13 — not including the recent Edwardsville spill — have surpassed 100,000 gallons.
The accidents stem from a list of prominent pipeline operators and energy companies. Marathon ranks as the pipeline owner with the most spills in the two states, over the 20-year span.
Marathon was involved with 49 of the 432 incidents, according to the database of liquid oil spills. The company with the second most spills was Explorer, followed by BP, then Buckeye Partners and Enbridge.
Most Missouri and Illinois spills — 53% — were attributed to the lines themselves, with material or welding or equipment failure as the leading causes of pipeline incidents, based on data from the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Corrosion was the next most common cause, triggering 15% of the spills.
“It is surprising to see a spill of this size coming from Marathon,” said Caram, discussing the Edwardsville incident. “They have a very good reputation of taking good care of their pipelines.”
Past incidents have occurred close to the current cleanup site. Along the same pipeline route and just a couple miles to the west, a Marathon line spilled more than 136,000 gallons of crude oil in 2002 — only about 15% of which was recovered.
More recently, in February 2019, about 200,000 gallons of oil spilled from storage tanks in Granite City, with some contaminating the city sewer system and nearby ground.
The very next day, a separate oil leak in St. Charles County brought the Keystone pipeline to a halt, after it spilled 1,800 gallons of crude near the Missouri River.
In 2010, TransCanada, the Keystone pipeline operator, specifically identified St. Charles County as a “worst-case scenario” location for a spill to occur. That year, the company was required to unearth some of the pipeline, after government tests found that certain parts of the project might have been built with defective steel.
Excavation in the northwestern part of Missouri found nine anomalies in the pipeline. The Post-Dispatch reported that year that more of the line might have required excavation if government standards for pipe strength hadn’t been relaxed in 2009.
Caram said that pipeline operators can combat threats like corrosion by running an electrical current through the lines. Meanwhile, inspection tools can be sent through the inside of the lines to check for and identify anomalies, like teeth or places where the pipe’s thickness varies.
Looking ahead, experts like him are curious to learn more details about the recent Edwardsville spill, Marathon’s inspection and leak detection practices, and whether the causes ultimately point to broader risks in the pipeline system, or if risks were unique to that single location.
“Is there a risk on the rest of the system?” Caram asked. “The public should pay attention to what the cause for failure is.”
Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.