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​Is Summit trying to beat the clock before safety guidelines are established?

News | February 15th, 2024

By Laura Simmons

laurasimmons2025@u.northwestern.edu

Gerald Briggs, the Warren County Mississippi Fire/EMS chief, was at a festival in February 2020 when a local law enforcement officer asked him if he had heard about the explosion in Satartia, Mississippi, which is in Yazoo County. Briggs immediately called Jack Willingham, the Yazoo County director of emergency management, who told Briggs there was an unknown explosion and they needed help. Briggs assembled a crew and left for Satartia.

Briggs arrived at a checkpoint preventing people from entering the affected area. The initial emergency response was unable to enter Satartia because the fire trucks stopped working. No one knew what had happened. They thought it might be a chlorine or natural gas leak. Briggs said he could hear the leak, which was a light sound off in the distance, but grew deafeningly loud as he got closer.

Briggs and his crew, wearing self-contained breathing apparatuses, entered the affected area. They found victims lying on the ground experiencing shortness of breath and vomiting. They also came across a sedan that, although in drive, was stationary because the engine couldn’t run. The people inside were unconscious with extremely shallow breathing and foaming from the mouth. Briggs said he didn’t think the victims would survive.

Later Briggs would learn the leak was from a carbon dioxide pipeline owned by Denbury Gulf Coast Pipelines. Denbury did not notify authorities of the rupture until two hours after the initial leak. This rupture released carbon dioxide that sank to the ground and displaced oxygen, preventing people from breathing and vehicles from running.

The Denbury carbon dioxide leak did not cause any deaths. However, 45 people sought medical attention and some still experience long-term effects such as severe headaches, nausea and trouble sleeping.

Briggs testified at a North Dakota Public Service Commission meeting. The PSC hearings were held throughout spring 2023 after Summit Carbon Solutions filed an application to construct 320 miles of carbon dioxide pipeline in North Dakota. This would be part of Summit’s proposed 2,000-mile pipeline through Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota. The pipeline will capture and compress the carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants to be sequestered underground in North Dakota.

The safety of carbon dioxide pipelines was one of the many issues addressed during the PSC hearings. In June 1, 2023 testimony before the PSC, Rod Dillon, Summit’s director of regulatory compliance, said Summit will work with first responders to provide adequate training and will have a final emergency response plan available to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and local responders before commencing operations.

“I believe that public safety is best achieved when the first responders and operations personnel are educated in the details of the response plan,” Dillon said.

According to Eliot Higgins at the Dakota Resource Council, Summit had its first meeting with regional emergency response personnel in Emmons, Burleigh, and Morton Counties on November 27, 2023, Summit did not respond. However, these were closed meetings and Summit has not yet released what was discussed.

The High Plains Reader contacted Bismarck Rural Fire Department Chief Dustin Theurer. He confirmed he was at the meeting, but said HPR should reach out to Summit to find out more. Summit did not respond.

Eric Heupel, CEO of Ashley Medical Center, said Summit has not yet talked to them about safety, training, or equipment. In order to efficiently respond to a pipeline leak, Heupel said emergency response personnel would need basic training from Summit, who would hopefully supply the extra necessary resources, such as carbon dioxide monitors. Heupel also said educating the public, especially farmers, would be key. This would include letting them know the carbon dioxide pipeline is in their area and what to do if they accidentally hit it.

“In our business, we work on problems every day, and it's just another new problem,” Heupel said. “We got to figure it out. Once you understand it, then it's not so bad, usually. The training side is easy to do once you know what to train on.”

One important piece of information when deciding where to put a pipeline and responding to a carbon dioxide pipeline leak is the plume model, which maps where the carbon dioxide is most likely to travel if the pipeline ruptures, showing who is most at risk and therefore guiding the emergency response. However, Summit has not released its plume model, saying that terrorists could use it to tamper with the pipeline. On July 20, 2023 the Burleigh County commissioners sent a letter to the PSC requesting that the plume model be made available to the public.

“Given the safety concerns to the public and to allow for adequate future planning by the governing bodies affected, we request [Summit’s] plume model be made available,” the letter said.

Burleigh County Commissioner Steve Bakken said despite sending the letter months ago, they have still not received a response from Summit, making him skeptical of whether the plume model even exists. He said public safety is his number one concern and, without the plume model, emergency response personnel cannot perform their duties.

“You can’t sign off on something like that,” Bakken said.

However, even if Summit were to release its plume model, the model might not be accurate. John Abraham, a professor and program director in mechanical engineering at the University of St. Thomas, said the PHAST plume model should not be used to assess risk of harm from a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture because it drastically underestimates the concentration of the released gas. Instead, he recommends CFD modeling.

“People should use accurate tools when they assess risk,” Abraham said in an email to HPR. “A pipeline rupture would be a risk to nearby people and animals and it is preferred to have the best calculations to indicate how extensive the risk should be.”

The Burleigh County commissioners’ letter also addressed Summit’s opposition to Burleigh County’s zoning ordinance relating to the setback distance for hazardous liquid pipelines. The letter said that without the plume model, the county did not have the necessary information to know the dangers of a pipeline failure. Therefore, they enacted ordinances to promote the safety of the citizens.

This issue was the focus of a December 21, 2023 PSC hearing where arguments were made about whether Summit is legally required to honor local county ordinances. The PSC has yet to issue a decision. This hearing came after the PSC denied Summit a permit on August 4, 2023, but then grantedSummit’s request for reconsideration on September 15, 2023.

Bakken said Summit has not responded to Burleigh County’s requests concerning public safety and emergency management. This, among other things, has made Bakken question Summit’s dedication to public safety. He suspects that Summit is trying to race the clock to build the pipeline before PHMSA updates carbon dioxide safety guidelines in response to the Satarsia, Mississippi leak.

“They were trying to get done early so that they could get grandfathered in,” Bakken said. “That's not in the best interest of public safety.” 

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