116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Pipelines explosions can injure, sicken or even kill people and leaks can pollute the environment.
But most of the time, pipelines transport gas and hazardous liquids quickly, efficiently and with so few mishaps people forget the steel tubes are there.
That’s largely the case in Iowa, where there have been only a handful of major pipeline incidents, and some of those go back decades, according to federal safety records and local emergency responders.
“I’ve been here since ‘07 in my position and they have been the least of my problems,” said Dave Wilson, Emergency Management Agency coordinator for Johnson County. “We spend a lot more time with transportation or facility haz mat than pipelines.”
According to the Iowa Utilities Board, which governs pipelines in the state, Iowa has 46,663 miles of underground pipelines, with 42,211 miles used for shipping liquefied natural gas and 4,448 miles moving hazardous liquids such as oil, gasoline or propane.
Three corporate groups — Summit Carbon Solutions, Navigator CO2 Ventures and ADM/Wolf Carbon Solutions — plan to apply for permits from the board this year to build pipelines to ship liquid carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertilizer plants to sites in North Dakota and Illinois, where the CO2 would be sequestered underground instead of being released into the atmosphere.
At informational meetings for the projects, some Iowans have expressed fear about pipeline explosions, particularly on routes that run close to homes and schools. A CO2 pipeline explosion in February 2020 in western Mississippi, for instance, caused the evacuation of 300 people and sent 45 to the hospital.
The Gazette looked at the gas and hazardous liquids pipelines that already are underground in Linn and Johnson counties, and checked their safety records.
Linn County has about 100 miles of underground pipeline, according to online maps published by the by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Nearly all of those are for distributing natural gas. Some lines run through populated areas, such as the residential neighborhoods near the College Community School District campus, maps show.
But those pipelines have not caused major safety concerns, said Tom Ulrich, operations and readiness officer for the Linn County Emergency Management Agency.
Pipelines in Linn and Johnson counties
Linn and Johnson counties have more than 250 miles of underground gas and hazardous liquid pipelines. There haven't been any major incidents in recent years, which makes many people forget the pipelines are there, but when a pipeline explodes or has a major spill, it can be very dangerous. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration provides public maps of pipeline locations, which The Gazette used to create these Google map images. Click on an area of the maps to see detail at the maximum zoom permissible by the PHMSA.
Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
“We’re pretty fortunate here in Linn County,” he said. “If you told me it was an ammonia line, I’d be a lot more concerned. I’m not saying this is safe 100 percent, I’m just not having a panic attack it’s running through Cedar Rapids.”
MidAmerican Energy, of Des Moines, has about 37 miles of gas pipeline in Linn County and 60 miles in Johnson County as part of the utility’s more than 10,000 miles of distribution and transmission pipeline in Iowa. The company has had only two incidents since 2014 and only one in Iowa, the pipeline administration reported.
In both incidents, excavators accidentally damaged pipelines after not calling ahead to have lines marked. In a Polk County incident in 2015, the contractor who drilled into the pipeline suffered burns on his arms and face, records show.
The federal government has not pursued enforcement actions against MidAmerican since at least 2006.
Alliant Energy, based in Madison, owns about 30 miles of natural gas pipeline in Linn and Johnson counties. Since 2014, the company has had one incident: In 2019, a contractor in West Burlington struck a gas line near a house and caused a fire, records show. No one was injured.
Linn County has about 18 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines that run through the southeast corner of the county, but neither pipeline passes through a city or major residential area.
One of those pipeline owners, Buckeye Partners, has had 120 incidents since 2014, but none have been in Iowa, records show. There have been no enforcement actions against the Houston-based company.
Magellan Midstream Partners, based in Tulsa, Okla., has 2.5 miles of hazardous liquid pipeline in Linn County and about 50 miles in Johnson County. Magellan also owns a terminal and aboveground storage in Coralville, at the southwest corner of Interstate 80 and First Avenue.
“How many people drive by Magellan’s terminal in Coralville in an hour and they don’t think anything about it?” Wilson asked. “Until it’s a problem, most people don’t pay attention to it.“
Johnson County pipelines
Magellan has had 132 incidents since 2014, including 11 in Iowa.
Two of those incidents, one in 2020 and one in 2021, were at the Coralville terminal, where Magellan staff noticed small leaks and made repairs. Others included:
- On Aug. 24 in Sioux County, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee noticed a sheen on Rock River, and an investigation found a crack in a weld in the pipeline running under the river, said Doyle McKeever, an environmental specialist with the Iowa DNR’s Spencer field office. About 20 gallons of gasoline leaked from the pipeline, but no dead fish were noted and the Iowa DNR did not fine Magellan, McKeever said.
- On Jan. 25, 2017, in Worth County, Magellan raised a “code red” after discovering a major leak from a pipeline heading north into Minnesota, federal records show. They closed off the line and investigated, finding an excavator had gouged and dented the pipe. The company removed 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil to clean up the spill.
The federal government proposed $308,000 in penalties against Magellan since 2014.
“Since there are no petroleum refineries in Iowa, the state relies on various petroleum pipelines to safely transport gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to storage and distribution terminals throughout the state,” Magellan spokesman Garrison Haning said in an email. “Our company complies with all laws and regulations and we are focused on the safe operation of our pipelines and storage terminals.”
Overall, Johnson County has about 160 miles of pipeline, with 90 miles of that carrying hazardous liquids.
ONEOK, based in Tulsa, Okla., pipes natural gas liquids east-west across rural Johnson County. The company has had 89 incidents since 2014, with four in Iowa.
On June 24, 2020, a ONEOK employee was installing pipeline markers in rural Johnson County when he noticed stunted growth in a farm field. An investigation found a cracked gasket was allowing some liquid to seep into the field. ONEOK replaced the broken parts. Three other incidents — two in Cass County and one in Polk County — also involved small leaks, federal records show.
The government proposed penalties of $631,347 against ONEOK since 2014.
The Northern Border Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that runs through Lone Tree, has had three incidents since 2014, but none have been in Iowa. The pipeline, whose parent company is ONEOK, has no enforcement actions.
Enterprise Products, with about 22 miles of petroleum pipeline in the southeastern corner of Johnson County, has had three incidents. But none have been in Iowa. The federal government has proposed $894,000 in penalties for the Houston-based company since 2014.
Explosions rare in Iowa
There have been few pipeline explosions in Eastern Iowa.
When an electrician accidentally drilled into a natural gas pipeline Sept. 28, 2020, in Dubuque, it caused an explosion and fire that destroyed an unoccupied house, KCRG-TV reported. A firefighter was injured fighting the blaze.
An explosion April 4, 1987, at Mid-America Pipeline Company’s underground gas storage terminal east of Iowa City forced evacuation of 100 families, the Associated Press reported. The company — not related to MidAmerican Energy — had to pump 5 million gallons of ethanol-propane gas out of the reservoir while flames continued to show on the surface for several days.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no one else was hurt in the blaze, the AP reported.
Spills of hazardous liquids from trucks and trains have been far more frequent in Iowa than pipeline incidents, Wilson and Ulrich said.
BNSF Railways agreed last year to pay a $1.5 million settlement after about 160,000 gallons of tar sand oil leaked into northwest Iowa waterways in 2018 after flooding caused a train derailment, AP reported.
A 2015 derailment near Dubuque caused Canadian Pacific rail cars filled with ethanol to slide into the Mississippi River. Another car caught fire.
A 2019 semi crash on Highway 20 near Grundy Center sent about 100 gallons of diesel into a creek, the Iowa DNR reported.
On Friday, the Iowa DNR and other authorities said they were monitoring the loss of about 7,500 gallons of unleaded gasoline from a self-fueling station at Agvantage Farm Supply in Eldora. A bank next door was evacuated after reporting fumes inside.
The energy industry, regulators and pipeline safety advocates have worked to inform people who live near pipelines and excavator contractors about the potential risk of a leak or line strike, said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, based in Bellingham, Wash.
“There are a lot of incidents caused by excavation damage, third-party services, Caram said. ”That’s what led to the 8-1-1 campaign.“
8-1-1 is the national call-before-you-dig phone number that people are supposed to call to have underground utilities marked before excavation. But this doesn’t always happen. More than one-quarter of the Iowa pipeline incidents since 2014 were caused by contractors hitting a pipeline, records show.
MidAmerican Energy hosts and attends meetings designed for excavators to discuss pipeline markings, safe excavation practices and what the law says about calling before you dig, spokesman Geoff Greenwood said in an email.
MidAmerican also holds annual meetings with emergency responders and is available to talk with fire department commanders in the case of any incidents, he said.
To guard the integrity of its pipelines, MidAmerican monitors the routes from the ground and the air to look for signs of excavator damage or soil washouts that have exposed the pipes. The company also uses methane detectors when they walk the routes to see if there are leaks, Greenwood said.
Energy companies monitor pressure in their pipelines and if there’s a change — possibly indicating a leak or explosion — they can halt or reroute the flow. Many companies also use an in-line inspection tool called a “smart pig” that can be sent through the line to check for weakness or cracks, Caram said.
“While there’s still a lot of technical progress to be fully confident in results, they have gotten a lot better at finding anomalies and points of corrosion,” Caram said. “You can get a lot of information about a pipeline without digging it up.”
However, if the pipeline companies were doing inspections as often as they should there wouldn’t be any incidents, he said. “We would love to see more inspections. We all share the goal of zero incidents and we’re not there.”
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