HOMEGROWN Life: What Could Have Been and What I Hope Won’t Be

Reader Contribution by Farmaid And Homegrown.Org
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This month I’m writing to my HOMEGROWN friends about the ominous tale of what could have been.

I could have written about happy things.

I could have written about morel mushroom season, one of life’s glorious pleasures.

I could have written about our booming garden produce. We’re harvesting small volumes of mixed salad greens, spinach, turnips, mixed mustards, brassicas for braising, and beautiful radishes.

I could have written about the continued love-hate relationship I have with my goat herd, the goats having broken into our house one Saturday while we were out on the soccer field. They broke a lot of stuff, including lamps, coffee mugs, various canned goods, my son’s favorite illustrated poster of Greek deities, dozens of house plants, a prized National Geographic poster from the former Soviet Union, my sons’ taxonomy project (two months in the making), and much more. They got on both boys’ beds and tracked up their bedclothes with mud and manure and fur. Well, this wasn’t funny at the time, but in hindsight I suppose I can laugh about it.

But instead I’m going to write about a more serious matter that has reared its head on the western Missouri plains. Big oil is expanding, and it has me and many others in my small community deeply concerned.

You’ve probably heard about the fight against TransCanada and their Keystone XL Pipeline proposal from Northern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Keystone XL Pipeline would be carrying some of the most toxic and polluting oil on Earth, made by destroying Canada’s boreal forest in the Tar Sands region. The Tar Sands oil project has been called “game over for the climate” by NASA’s pre-eminent climate scientist, James Hansen. Climate activists, including 350.org and many others, have thus far been able to delay construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline since it crosses international borders, and the President/State Department has to sign off on it. It’s a great story about citizens fighting back against environmental destruction from the oil companies and winning—at least for now.

Enter our local situation, and the Enbridge Flanagan South Pipeline. This proposed pipeline is actually Enbridge’s play as the alternative to Keystone XL. It is being done with a lower profile, more piecemeal approach. So far it has gotten very little public scrutiny. We’re hoping our little group of concerned citizens can help change that.

We live in a rural community in West Missouri that has invested millions of dollars to improve the cleanliness of our public water infrastructure and to upgrade it. The proposed Flanagan South pipeline would carry highly toxic diluted bitumen through it, and that pipeline crosses one mile from the water intake of our local water supply. There are other towns along the route facing similar risks. 

And while this fight is about the destruction of the climate and Northern Canadian tar sands development, it’s also a local fight about the risks associated with toxic oil coming through a pipeline that could rupture and foul our water and local ecology. Here are some concerns we’ve discovered about diluted bitumen, which the oil industry refers to as “dilbit,” as we’ve learned about the project:

• Dilbit contains benzene, mixed hydrocarbons, and n-hexane. All three are toxins that can affect the human brain and central nervous system.

• Dilbit contains hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide can cause suffocation in humans in concentrations over 100 parts per million. This is a serious risk to workers breathing in vapors from the chemical mixture.

• Dilbit contains many toxic heavy metals that do not break down in the environment. Vanadium, nickel, arsenic, and other heavy metals can accumulate and cause toxicity in plants, wildlife, and people.

• Dilbit’s characteristics make it very different than conventional petroleum, therefore it operates very differently than conventional oil as it flows through the pipeline. Dilbit has much higher acidity, viscosity, sulfur content, pipeline temperature, and pipeline pressure than conventional oil pipelines. Dilbit also contains higher rates of flow per second of quartz and silicates than commercial sand blasters. These factors create concerns regarding pipeline spill risks.

• Unlike conventional oil, dilbit does not float when it spills into water. Dilbit sinks, making surface water containment strategies ineffective.

• Despite industry promises of safety and pipeline integrity, spills happen. Often. In fact, there are more than 100 petrochemical spills every year, flowing toxic poisons into our forests, fields, waterways, and communities.

• If you’ve read or heard about the recent dilbit spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, or the destructive pipeline that burst along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan a couple of summers ago, both spills were pipeline ruptures involving dilbit.

• To top off the risks of the pipeline operations, there is very little legislation or regulatory framework that we’ve found that addresses these concerns. Pipeline development, contrary to the popular imagination, is exempt from most national and local environmental standards. Even if they wanted to (and, yes, that’s a questionable proposition), the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources could do very little about this proposed pipeline. Instead, pipeline permits and inspections are governed by the Department of Transportation, which only requires inspections every six years.

So what’s going to happen? I don’t know. This is one of those situations where locals are shocked when they hear about what’s coming through our region—and yet, there has been almost no public information about the proposed Flanagan South Pipeline. We’re trying to change that. So stay tuned. There might be something interesting to tell in future months. Wish us luck, because we’re not tilting at windmills here. (We love windmills, after all.) We’re tilting at billions of dollars backing a highly toxic project that could spell real disaster in our region.

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises, including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility, and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, a local food store that operates a weekly produce subscription program called the Missouri Bounty Box. Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.