(CN) — An environmental group sued the U.S. government in federal court Tuesday, alleging that it has “chronically failed” in its required monitoring of thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines in the West.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Montana, alleges that in the last six years “defendants have chronically failed” to examine “pipelines and associated facilities on federal lands in the United States.”
WildEarth Guardians sued the Department of Transportation, and its director, Elaine Chao; the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and its administrator Howard Elliott.
The lawsuit claims that the government agencies violated the Mineral Leasing Act and Administrative Procedures Act by failing to monitor the pipelines.
Members of WildEarth Guardians said they have witnessed leaking pipelines on public lands, and “have come across unsightly oil spills, rusted equipment and installations, sounds of leaking gas, and smells of oil and gas,” according to the lawsuit.
“Our safety regulators are, unfortunately, asleep on the job,” plaintiff’s attorney Becca Fischer said. “For too long, they’ve turned a blind eye to protecting our safety and our public lands. This has to stop.”
There are more than 700,000 acres of public lands used for oil and gas production in the U.S., most of it in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, according to the lawsuit. WildEarth Guardians estimates that there are nearly 120,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines on public lands.
The lawsuit claims that exposure to leaking pipelines and chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and other volatile organic compounds can cause long-term health impacts and increase the risk of cancer.
While almost all of the duties under the Mineral Leasing Act apply to the secretary of the Department of the Interior, the secretary of the DOT has one duty under the law to examine “all pipelines and associated facilities on Federal lands” and report “any potential leaks or safety problems periodically, but at least once a year,” the lawsuit states.
Two major pipeline ruptures occurred in Montana in the Yellowstone River in the last seven years. In July 2011, an Exxon pipeline underneath the riverbed burst and spilled 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. A similar incident occurred in January 2015 when a pipeline spilled approximately 50,000 gallons of oil into the frozen river.
Colorado has also had two major pipeline accidents. In March 2017, more than 5,000 gallons of oil leaked from a 6-inch pipeline on federal land, according to the lawsuit. An investigation blamed the line failure on corrosion and a failure to conduct annual pressure testing, according to the lawsuit.
In April 2017, two people were killed in Firestone, Colorado, when a home exploded from a buildup of natural gas in the soil and basement of their home, according to WildEarth, which said the natural gas had leaked from a line connected to an abandoned gas well.
“The company that owned the pipeline did not know that the flowline existed,” WildEarth said. “This incident further highlights the lack of oversight over many of these pipelines.”
Wyoming experiences frequent pipeline leaks and spills on federal lands, WildEarth said. In 2014, a corroded pipeline leaked more than 25,000 gallons of crude oil near Gillette, Wyoming, and according to WildEarth, the company that managed the pipeline did not have a valid operating permit.
While oil spills result in contamination on the ground, WildEarth claims in the lawsuit that pipeline accidents also contribute to climate change, as natural gas is composed primarily of methane.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration generally does not require annual inspections for pipeline segments that do not affect rural areas or “high consequence areas,” WildEarth said. According to a Congressional Research Service report on pipeline safety, only 7 percent of natural gas gathering lines (lines that transport gas from wells to transmission lines) are regulated.
DOT regulations also specifically exempt from regulation oil flow lines, small lines that connect directly to wells. WildEarth said a 2017 review of state agency records found that flow lines have been responsible for more than 7,000 spills, leaks and accidents since 2009.
The environmental group filed a request this week with the Bureau of Land Management to impose a moratorium on new oil and gas pipeline right-of-way approvals until the DOT conducts its required inspections.
The conservation group said the accidents are only going to increase with the federal government’s expansion of oil and gas leasing on public lands.
“The fracking boom in the Rocky Mountain West is taxing existing pipeline infrastructure and putting our lands at risk like never before,” WildEarth attorney Rebecca Fischer said. “The Trump Administration is breaking the law. For our health and safety, it’s time to put on the brakes and start enforcing accountability.”