You'll Understand Why People Protest Pipelines After Using This Interactive Map

December 24th 2016

Adeshina Emmanuel

Some people may think those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline are being alarmists when it comes to the risk of spills, but a new website drives home the point that accidents do indeed happen.

In North Dakota, protestors have railed against the DAPL project citing fears the project could contaminate water supplies and damage grounds sacred to local Native American communities. There is also a very real fear of spills, explosions, and other accidents. To illustrate that point, David Adam Hernandez created a website: Pipeline Accidents Happen.

The website uses a timeline and interactive maps to let users peruse hundreds of pipeline accidents that have struck the U.S. since 2000.

The site stresses that accidents happen, and that pipelines are no exception to that rule:

As pipelines age and accidents happen, the United States has seen a spike of energy infrastructure incidents in the 21st century. Fuel leaks contaminate soil and water, posing a serious threat to the land and ecosystems we rely on. Families displaced in explosions or by line ruptures are sometimes forced to leave their homes permanently. Farmers face extensive cleanup and abandon the land for growth. These incidents demonstrate the impact this has on the land, wildlife and people that can take years to recover from.

Hernandez, a software engineer with a background in computer science and biochemistry, lives in Austin, Texas. He told ATTN: that when he caught wind of the media coverage around #NoDAPL protests, he found it "just ridiculous that it's a question that people have to protest against these big oil companies coming in." But since he couldn't get away from work to commit himself to joining protestors at Standing Rock, Hernandez worked on articulating some of their concerns with data visualization.

"I think it provides context to worries expressed about pipelines being built so close to sources of water and the frequency of accidents," Hernandez said. "I really wanted to make it a very informative website without any bias."

"I think the data speaks for itself," he told ATTN:.

Some of the incidents listed on his website are gas explosions in buildings or residential areas that killed people, like the 2014 explosion that ended eight lives in East Harlem. Other cases stem from farmers accidentally plowing into a pipeline, or excavators hitting an unexpected pipe. But many of the incidents highlighted are major accidents that stem from defective or neglected infrastructure and human error, like the infamous 2010 rupture of an Enbridge-operated pipeline in Michigan that spewed over 1.2 million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, according to the EPA, forcing people to evacuate and saturating nearby wetland habitats.

Arthur DeVitalis, an Austin-based journalist, helped write content for the website, including summaries of the major spills. DeVitalis told ATTN: he thinks the country needs to seriously address the effect these accidents can have on the quality of soil and water. And on people.

If nothing is done, he said, "this is something that is going to impact our daily lives on a more extreme basis."

Last May, when a pipeline leak soiled part of California's coastline, the Associated Press wrote the accident reflected “troubling trend in the nation's infrastructure: As U.S. oil production has soared, so has the number of pipeline accidents.” But in 2013, a report from the conservative Manhattan Institute argued that compared to transporting oil and gas over ground via rail or truck, pipelines have fewer accidents and are more cost-effective. 

The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed the DAPL project, but that hold might be temporary. The administration of President Barack Obama is unlikely to settle the controversy before Trump moves into the White House on Jan. 20. During the campaign Trump said he supports completion the Dakota pipeline, and like him the president-elect's pick to run the Department of Energy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project.

Trump's choice of Perry, and his support of the DAPL project could signal that energy companies will have an easier time getting pipeline projects green-lighted across the country. That means that environmental activists have their work cut out for them over the next four to eight years, with satiating the country's appetite for fossil fuels and corporate profits likely to take precedence over protecting the environment.