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We All Live Downstream: At Risk From the Dakota Access Pipeline

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When oil hits water, both humans and wildlife suffer. | Photo: Chris Clarke
When oil hits water, both humans and wildlife suffer. | Photo: Chris Clarke

Oil spills are an increasing threat to human health worldwide. That’s true enough when crude oil spills on land: it ruins any soil it touches, and pollutes the air as its volatile components evaporate.

Spill that crude in water, and the damage can become far more widespread. Wetlands, streams and rivers can carry spilled oil many miles away from the site of the spill. As the heavier substances in the oil settle out, they can permanently damage the waterway and all the living things that depend on it. Meanwhile the lighter fractions of that crude can be carried farther, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The Dakota Access Pipeline will carry at least 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day along 1,172 miles of 30-inch-wide pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil terminal at Patoka, Illinois. Along the way, it will cross and recross major rivers belonging to the nation’s largest watershed, the Missouri-Mississippi.

At 22 of those crossings, the risk of spills from a conventional pipeline is severe enough that DAPL’s owners, Energy Transfer Partners, have tunneled deep under the river beds to reduce the likelihood that a spill will affect surface water. At the controversial crossing of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the pipeline will be up to 90 feet beneath the riverbed.

But even the pipeline’s most ardent defenders don’t claim DAPL won’t leak. The simple reason: all pipelines leak.

Oil and gas companies reported 162 pipeline spills in North Dakota in 2014 alone, and that doesn’t include spills that took place inside the fence-lines of oil company facilities.

Buried pipelines, in fact, may pose a much more serious threat to public health than those on the surface. An above-ground pipeline can be monitored and repaired much more easily with even a small leak. A leak in a hardened pipeline 90 feet below the Missouri River may not be detected for months, and cleanup may prove impossible. That means the leaked oil is free to percolate into the river, there to endanger the health of those downstream.

It's not just the Dakota Access Pipeline: here's an oil pad perilously close to the Little Missouri River. | Photo: NPCA
An oil pad perilously close to the Little Missouri River in North Dakota. | Photo: NPCA

There are a lot of people downstream of the DAPL’s many river crossings. Approximately 17 million people rely on downstream portions of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers for their drinking water, more than 10 million of them in the nine major metropolitan areas downstream: Bismarck, Sioux City, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

And that’s not counting the many smaller communities, some of them far from affluent, along the Missouri and Mississippi in 11 states. As geographer Jennifer Veilleux notes, some of those more rural downstream communities include Native nations. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations got a lot of press on the topic of their vulnerability to DAPL, but spills from the Dakota Access Pipeline could also harm the water supply for other downstream reservations including the Crow Creek, Iowa, Omaha, Ponca, Rosebud, Sac and Fox Nation, Santee, Lower Brule, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, Winnebago and Yankton reservations.

The effects of oil contamination are wide-ranging. There’s the direct harm to human health done by short-term exposure to petroleum products, which can include poisoning, respiratory damage and apparent nervous system damage.  These ailments can be experienced by anyone in proximity to a spill, but they’re especially dangerous for anyone working on cleaning up the oil, whether they’re operating booms to skim oil off the water or cleaning affected wildlife.

Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in North Dakota | Photo:  Lars Ploughman, some rights reserved
DAPL under construction in South Dakota. Those pipeline walls are thinner than you might have expected. | Photo: Lars Ploughman, some rights reserved

Secondly, there are the long-term effects from consistent exposure to smaller amounts of petroleum and its components. These are too varied to create a complete list; petroleum can contain dozens or even hundreds of different hydrocarbon compounds, each with its own set of health risks, and crude oil’s chemical composition varies depending on where it comes from.

But in general, chronic exposure to the constituents of crude oil causes a range of cancers as well as respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and asthma, and has been linked to reproductive disorders including miscarriage and stillbirth, central nervous system disorders, and mental health problems.

People are also hurt by spilled crude oil’s effect on other organisms. When the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska wiped out the salmon and herring fisheries in and near Prince William Sound, fishing-dependent communities such as Cordova were devastated. That toll fell especially hard on Native communities with salmon-based cultures. In places like the oil-drenched Cross Rivers State in Nigeria, traditional farmers and herders suffer from oil contamination of their livestock and game.

Much the same thing happened in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, as the shrimp fishery was devastated, tourism collapsed and real estate values for coastal properties affected by the spill nose-dived.

Cleaning up after a major oil spill | Photo: MPCA, some rights reserved
Cleaning up after a major oil spill | Photo: MPCA, some rights reserved

In the vicinity of a large spill from DAPL or other pipelines, we can expect to see similar health problems and economic dislocation. But significant accidents can even affect communities far downstream. While the levels of contaminants in the Mississippi River at New Orleans may not be significantly affected by a large accident near Bismarck, each accident does add to the overall burden of pollution endured by communities downstream.

The Missouri and Mississippi watersheds are among the most heavily industrialized in the world, and pollution from Montana to Ohio and New York washes downstream toward the Gulf. The burden of toxic substances is great enough to cause a “dead zone” in the Gulf offshore from the Mississippi Delta.

Pollutants in the river don’t just flow downstream. Water from the Missouri-Mississippi watershed is used in consumer food and hygiene products, as irrigation water for food crops, and to slake the thirst of livestock. Persistent organic pollutants from an oil spill — or more likely, a series of spills — may end up in your food, beverages, and toothpaste even if you live hundreds of miles outside of the Missouri-Mississippi watershed.

Or we could wean ourselves off oil, saving our health, our wildlife, and our climate in the process.

Map Feature Currently Unavailable

Pipeline Risks | ALMA and Friends
Indigenous Lands
Lands either held or claimed by Native nations
Urban Cores
Places with population densities higher than 1,000 per square mile
Critical Habitat
Areas defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as crucial for the survival of Endangered and Threatened species
Dakota Access Pipeline
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline would carry up to 450,000 barrels of oil per day through four states, crossing rivers that provide water for 17 million people downstream.
Occurred Oil Spills
An incomplete set of recorded oil spills
Potential Oil Spills
Places that have been deemed particularly vulnerable to damage from oil spills


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