Summit identified ‘handful’ of populated areas at risk from major pipeline breach

By: - September 5, 2023 7:41 pm

A carbon dioxide pipeline break in 2020 in Mississippi sickened dozens. (Photo courtesy of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

There are several areas of “high consequence” in Iowa that could be inundated by carbon dioxide if Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed pipeline has a major failure, according to James Powell, the company’s chief operating officer.

On Tuesday, Powell was the first witness for the company to testify at its evidentiary hearing with the Iowa Utilities Board, which is weighing whether to approve a route for the project. Powell did not identify the at-risk areas.

Summit wants to build a pipeline system that would span more than 2,000 miles in five states and would transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants and other facilities to North Dakota for underground sequestration.

Many of the landowners subject to eminent domain who testified in the first two weeks of the hearing are concerned about the safety of the pipeline and what would happen if it abruptly released a large amount of carbon dioxide.

Under certain conditions, such releases can create a plume of the gas that has the potential to travel long distances and suffocate people and animals.

That’s what happened in 2020 in Mississippi, when another company’s pipeline ruptured and sickened dozens of people. Three people nearly died.

The computer modeling that attempted to predict where carbon dioxide would go if it leaked from the Mississippi pipeline did not identify that threat.

James Powell is chief operating officer of Summit Carbon Solutions. (Screenshot of IUB livestream)

Powell testified that Summit’s so-called dispersion modeling is much more robust and said the company’s plans and precautions would make its pipeline system “one of the safest ever constructed.”

“We’re doing things that I think are prudent for an operator that Denbury didn’t do,” Powell said in reference to the Mississippi pipeline company.

The modeling has been a point of contention in Summit’s permit process in Iowa. The company has declined to publicly disclose it, claiming that someone who wishes to sabotage the pipeline could use the information to inflict the most casualties. It has further argued that safety considerations are governed by federal authorities and are outside the purview of the IUB.

Those who seek the results of the dispersion modeling have argued that the information should be considered to finalize a pipeline route, which the IUB must approve. Powell testified that Summit did not use the models to help determine the route.

On Tuesday, the board granted a request from the Sierra Club of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and several counties to force Summit to provide the information to attorneys of those groups. Those attorneys are required to keep the information confidential.

High consequence areas

There are a “handful” of locations along Summit’s proposed route where a pipeline break could be especially detrimental to people, Powell said.

A Summit spokesperson declined to provide a specific number of those locations but said they are mostly populated areas near ethanol plants. Powell said two of the locations are not near ethanol plants.

“In Iowa, of the 686 miles of pipeline proposed, there are 1.13 miles of direct impact to high consequence areas in a worst-case release scenario,” he said.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration typically considers populated areas, drinking water sources and sensitive ecological sites to be high consequence areas.

Powell did not specify where the areas are located, but a review of the ethanol producers the company plans to connect to shows that six of them lie within a mile of a city.

Five facilities are located near the Iowa cities of  Goldfield, Mason City, Merrill, Shenandoah and Superior. The sixth is near Lyle, Minnesota.

Powell declined to elaborate on what specific atmospheric conditions were considered for the plume modeling but said it included an evaluation of worst-case scenarios.

Carbon dioxide plumes can be affected by air temperature, wind strength and direction, the lay of the land, the size of the pipe rupture and obstacles that affect the flow of air, such as corn and trees.

The gas is heavier than air, but carbon dioxide from pipeline leaks most often dissipates into the atmosphere without affecting people, federal officials have said.

Other testimony

Here are some other notable takeaways from Powell’s testimony on Tuesday:

— Powell disagreed with a perception among pipeline opponents that elected leaders, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, have sought to support and expedite the project: “I see no evidence that we are receiving special treatment from the Iowa Utilities Board.”

— The pipeline will not be built in Iowa if Summit is unable to get a permit in North Dakota, Powell said. Utility regulators in that state rejected Summit’s permit application last month, but the company has asked them to reconsider.

— Summit will pay farmers for crop losses tied to the construction and operation of its pipeline beyond three years from the start of construction. It will also pay to fix underground tiling that is damaged even if that damage isn’t identified for years.

— Landowners who are subject to eminent domain might get the same compensation that they were offered by the company for voluntary easements. County compensation commissions determine what is fair compensation for eminent domain takings.

— Summit is open to transporting carbon dioxide for other companies that might be used for commercial purposes rather than sequestration.

— The board had initially expected to have four Summit witnesses testify on Tuesday, but the questioning of Powell took more than six hours. About half of that questioning came from Brian Jorde, who is representing more than 100 landowners who oppose the project in multiple states.

Jorde is seeking a delay in the proceedings while the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission conducts its evidentiary hearing, which starts next week. He represents landowners in that state.

“To knowingly prevent Jorde Landowners’ lead counsel, who has solely prepared for all remaining witnesses including all Jorde Landowner witnesses, from participating in proceedings held between September 11 and 29 would cause Jorde Landowners extreme hardship and prejudice,” Jorde wrote.

It’s unclear when the board will rule on the request but it has denied several other requests to delay the hearing.

Testimony is set to resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday and can be viewed online.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.