Electability and Competence

Ever heard of the Yellowstone Pipeline? Maybe you saw a sign marking its path near Trent Ave, running around the South Side of Spokane, to the two local airports, or the rail yards in Hillyard. (See below for the map from the Spokesman article.) The Yellowstone Pipeline is part of our vast, aging, privately owned but publicly regulated infrastructure that moves petroleum products around our country. It runs across (or under) the Spokane River and, according to the Spokesman, within 50 feet of a well poked into the Rathdrum aquifer that provides a high percentage of our drinking water in Spokane.

Where there are petroleum pipelines there will be ruptures, especially when parts of this pipe have been carrying fuels and making profits since they were buried in 1954, nearly 70 years ago. There were pipeline ruptures in 2011 and 2015 in Montana, just a couple of a long list of accidents you can be reminded of here. Most of them don’t stick in memory.

Within this complex web of petroleum infrastructure it is a challenge to work out what company owns what pipeline. The Yellowstone Pipeline was operated as the Salt Lake Pipeline Co when the Spokane City Council first authorized it in 1954. The pipeline is now owned by Phillips 66 Co., Exxon Pipeline Holdings and Sunoco Pipeline. The original agreement with the City of Spokane expired in 2005.

Negotiating a new agreement (this one for 25 years) has taken time. Dollar values, concerns about liability, sprawl of housing over the route of the pipeline, all those things change a lot in nearly 70 years. What happens, one might ask, when a major rupture occurs and Spokane residents have their drinking water contaminated or the spill catches fire in what is now a nearby residential neighborhood? Who pays?

When I read the article about the complexity of this contract re-negotiation in the November 29, 2019, Spokesman it occurred to me how little we as citizens pay attention to what our elected officials and city employees do on our behalf. I was pleased to read that Breean Beggs, our City Council President, an attorney with experience in such negotiations and more than a passing acquaintance with liability issues around petroleum transport, was the chairperson of the committee working on this contract. The citizens of Spokane had just elected Mr. Beggs over Cindy Wendell (a person with no such experience) in an election that revolved around the issue of homelessness, an election in which wealthy realtors and builders weighed in on Ms. Wendell’s behalf with obscene amounts of money, an election in which the real functions of City government, like contract negotiations such as these, were ignored by the media. Happily, enough of the voters sought competence in spite of this money and media that we retained Breean Beggs to serve in our local government.

The Yellowstone Pipeline Pipeline will continue to snake its way through our neighborhoods, over our aquifer, and around our wells for the near future. At least we have the small comfort that the new contract addresses the question of insuring us, the citizens and taxpayers, against being left holding the bag in the event of a disastrous spill. A 100 million dollar liability insurance policy offers some peace of mind–and puts the company on notice that the City of Spokane is paying attention.

Mandated liability insurance is one small step in mitigating the physical and monetary risk to our communities associated with the transport of fossil fuels. Concerns over the explosion risk of oil trains remain–but that is a topic for another day. (Breean Beggs and Lori Kinnear remain involved in the efforts to protect our city from these risks.)

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. If you want to delve into a bit more detail about this pipeline, here are a couple of articles I found useful: