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Letter: Facts clouded, not clarified

This is in response to John Clauer’s letter to the editor where he attempts to “clarify” some complex crude oil pipeline spill concerns expressed in an earlier letter from John Weber. Unfortunately Mr. Clauer clouds rather than clarifies the facts. Oil spills are, by nature complex and to oversimplify their impacts is to ignore important realities. To be sure, Mr. Weber’s concerns for potential impacts from possible ruptures in the proposed Sandpiper Pipeline near Park Rapids are well founded.

Let there be no mistake, that oil spill has indeed caused irreparable harm to the environment, harm that still persists some 35 years after the spill. And Mr. Weber’s concerns that the recent U.S. Geological Survey report on elevated arsenic concentrations caused by the oil at the Pinewood oil spill sites are also valid. Until now, drinking water contamination threats from spills were thought to be caused primarily by toxic constituents in the crude oil itself or from oil breakdown products. This is the first study to reveal that oil spills can convert arsenic that occurs naturally and benignly in non-toxic form in most soils into a highly toxic form far in excess of drinking water standards.

To be clear, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s decision to allow the site to become a USGS Study site was the result of difficult “lesser of two evils” type choices regulatory agencies face with oil spills.

Agencies simply oversee collection of “recoverable” amounts of the lost oil until a point is reached where the recovery process itself begins to do more harm than leaving the balance of the oil in the environment. At Pinewood, attempts at pumping out the two foot layer of crude oil that still sits atop the groundwater at the site today proved ineffective because all methods tried entrained too much groundwater with very small amounts of oil.

The huge amount of oil/water mixture pumped out presented a treatment and disposal problem with no good solution. Thus, the oil remains sitting on and slowly dissolving into the groundwater but also slowly breaking down.

While the crude oil contamination of groundwater from this large spill near Pinewood was severe in degree, Mr. Clauer is correct in reporting that the areal extent of the groundwater contamination was limited. It is critically important to understand why this is so because once again, Enbridge got lucky. This particular site has an unusually flat slope to the groundwater table. The slope of a groundwater table and porosity of the soil determines the rate of groundwater and contaminant movement.

Since the biological and chemical breakdown of spilled oil is extremely slow, as the USGS studies reveal, it was fortunate at Pinewood that the oil also moved very slowly on and in the groundwater. This slow movement has allowed soil microbes as well as chemical and physical reactions that break down oil pollution sufficient time to reduce the oil to less harmful compounds thus limiting the areal footprint of the spill underground.

However, repeat this Pinewood spill scenario near Park Rapids, upstream (on the groundwater flow pattern) from the city’s municipal and industrial wells (as Sandpiper is now proposed) and in close proximity to many private and agricultural irrigation wells and to a premier trout stream that rapidly receive this ground water, that is an entirely different story. A rate of contaminant movement measured in inches per day or even per year at Pinewood contrasts to much higher rates, measured in hundreds of feet per day in the Straight River Aquifer near and under Park Rapids. Mr. Weber is correct in being concerned and when some of these facts are clarified, I think Mr. Clauer will be concerned as well.

Willis Mattison, Osage

Former Regional Director, Minnesota PCA and Official First Responder to the 1979 Pinewood Oil Spill