Plans for carbon dioxide pipelines raise safety concerns for small town responders in the Midwest

Oct. 9, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

A semi-truck trailer sits by the side of a road, with "No hazardous carbon pipelines" written on the side in big red letters.
A semi-trailer emblazoned with the slogan, “No hazardous carbon pipelines,” greets drivers entering the town of Fremont on Highway 23. Emergency responders in small towns such as Fremont have raised safety concerns regarding CO2 pipelines and their ability to deal with a rupture. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, Special To Harvest Public Media)

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This story is a part of a Harvest Public Media series on carbon capture projects. Read about CO2 pipeline projects being proposed throughout the Midwest and how federal tax credits are helping launch the projects.

A graphic reads "The Carbon Question," with a corn field and industrial plant in the background. A pipe runs underground at the bottom of the graphic.
This story is a part of a Harvest Public Media series on CO2 pipelines. (Graphic by Chandler Johnson, Harvest Public Media)

When Andy Alexander moved into his grandparents’ farmhouse a few years ago, he knew he was moving in next to the Dakota Access oil pipeline. It chugs away about one-eighth of a mile from his doorstep under rows of corn ripening from green to gold.

Then he learned another pipeline could go right next to it.

“They’re proposing that they put a carbon dioxide pipeline running parallel to the oil pipeline that’s currently here,” Alexander said.

The current route of a 1,300-mile pipeline proposed by Navigator CO2 Ventures cuts right between Alexander’s house and the small town of Fremont, Iowa.

An oil spill would be an environmental disaster, Alexander said, but he is actually more afraid of a release of carbon dioxide. He imagines an invisible cloud of CO2 drifting close to the ground, displacing oxygen along the way.

“And as it displaces that oxygen, I’ll no longer be able to breathe,” he said. “Depending on the weather it could spread all the way through town.”

A man stands for a portrait in front of a cornfield.
Andy Alexander, 43, was recruited to the Fremont, Iowa, volunteer fire department not long after he moved back to Iowa during the coronavirus pandemic. He believes a carbon capture pipeline proposed to run just outside the city limits would put the entire town at risk. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, Special To Harvest Public Media)

In an effort to capture carbon dioxide from ethanol plants across the Midwest, three companies are proposing new pipelines to carry CO2 to destinations where the gas can be permanently stored in geologic formations deep underground.

The projects would carve paths mostly through farmland and past small towns, and that raises safety concerns for many rural first responders.

Alexander, 43, is one of the youngest members of Fremont’s small volunteer fire department. He wonders how he would reach people at the elementary school half-a-mile away if a carbon dioxide release cuts him off from town.

“You can see the top of the school bus right there from where we're at out here,” Alexander said standing on a gravel road along the proposed pipeline route. “It kind of puts it in perspective how close this is, and it's very flat land so the CO2 could travel very quickly.”

Alexander’s worst fears actually came to life three years ago, in an accident hundreds of miles away.

The Satartia disaster

The village of Satartia, Mississippi, was overcome with carbon dioxide on the night of February, 22, 2020, when the Denbury Gulf Coast pipeline was severed by a landslide. The wind and the fall of the land carried a plume of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide farther than the company’s dispersion models had ever predicted it would go.

911 operators responded to calls from people whose cars had stopped running on the highway. A woman called for a paramedic to help her friend who was lying on the ground drooling and struggling to breathe.

First responders — mostly volunteers — evacuated 200 people from the surrounding area. Yazoo County Emergency Management Director Jack Willingham said ambulances stalled because the engines lacked oxygen, so responders commandeered cars to move people out.

Aerial view of a ruptured pipeline.
The 24-inch Denbury Gulf Coast CO2 pipeline ruptured just outside of the small village of Satartia, Mississippi, on February 22, 2020. Weeks of heavy rains resulted in a landslide that caused what the industry calls a “guillotine” failure. (Photo courtesy Of The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency)

Firefighters who arrived at the scene had air tanks, but he recalled a police deputy who didn’t.

“As I’m listening on the radio from our command center, every time he goes in and gets a victim out, his breath gets shorter and shorter and shorter,” Willingham said. “And it’s like I’m going to hear my friend die on the radio right then, until I ordered some other first responder: ‘Hey, go get him. Pull him out of there and don’t let him back in.’”

No one was killed, but 45 people were taken to the hospital.

Satartia has become shorthand for the fears that people in towns like Fremont, Iowa, have about pipeline safety. Many local responders say they lack the people and resources to face such a disaster themselves.

The companies behind the pipeline projects say it’s unfair to compare them to Denbury Gulf Coast.

“The Satartia incident, as unfortunate as it was, was really a violation by Denbury,” said Jimmy Powell, the Chief Operating Officer of Summit Carbon Solutions, another company proposing a CO2 pipeline in the Midwest.

Rules and regulations

At a recent regulatory hearing in Iowa, Powell said federal law requires companies to work with local responders, and Summit has held preliminary safety meetings in counties along the length of its proposed pipeline. That’s in contrast to Denbury, which had not held safety meetings with local agencies in Mississippi before its pipeline ruptured.

Federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration plan to propose new rules early next year to improve emergency preparedness in response to the Satartia incident.

Additionally, Powell said, Summit will supply communities along the route with emergency equipment, perhaps even utility vehicles with electric engines that can run when oxygen levels are low.

“Our team is thinking through that and they’ll collaborate with first responders,” Powell said. “Anything they need that makes sense that would be necessary for a CO2 response, worst-case scenario, we will provide.”

A close-up picture of the side of a fire truck.
Navigator CO2 Ventures has said it will offer safety training to local responders. Andy Alexander said that will be important for rural responders if the project goes through, but it’s also an extra time commitment. “It's just one more thing that we now have to take on as volunteers.” (Photo by Grant Gerlock, Special To Harvest Public Media)

Those pledges have not been enough to convince some state level boards, which have authority over pipeline routes, to approve the project. Summit was rejected on its first attempt to acquire approval for its route in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Navigator pipeline was also denied a permit by the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. Among other reasons, the commission said “the presence of the project will increase training demands upon already strained volunteer first responder departments.”

Now Navigator has asked to pause the permitting process in Iowa while the company considers revisions to its route and waits for a decision on its permit application in Illinois.

The end of the line

Navigator, whose proposed pipeline system could carry up to 15 million tons of carbon dioxide each year to permanent storage wells in central Illinois, has made its own safety pledges. The company has said it will hold two trainings per year for local responders and will provide them with emergency equipment.

Phil McCarty has a list of things he expects Navigator to buy before the pipeline is built through Morgan County, Illinois, where he is the director of emergency management. McCarty wants to have drones on hand to be able to observe the pipeline from a distance. He also wants CO2 monitors so responders can know whether the air is safe to breathe.

“I want to take control of making sure my responders have what they need to respond. That is what I’m going to focus on, and I won’t let up until we get that,” McCarty said.

There are other hazards that pass through rural communities, McCarty said. Trucks and trains transport toxic materials on a daily basis.

But after Satartia, he said, pipeline companies and emergency officials know what a serious CO2 release looks like. The least they can do is be prepared.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.