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A rupture that hospitalized 45 people raised questions about CO2 pipelines' safety

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, though, to Mississippi, where there's a big push for a possible climate solution. It involves trapping carbon dioxide before it leaves smokestacks, then building new pipelines to store it underground. NPR's Julia Simon reports from Satartia, Miss., on the questions about the safety of those pipelines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN LEAVES)

DEEMMERIS DEBRA'E BURNS: This is Perry Creek Road right here.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: OK.

BURNS: So that's Perry Creek.

SIMON: Deemmeris Debra'e Burns showed me the spot on a rural road that changed his life - an experience he thinks is a warning for America. On a Saturday night three years ago, Burns was heading home from a fishing trip in a red Cadillac with his brother and his cousin.

BURNS: We went fishing and had a nice time. And as we were coming back down the road, first we heard it, then we saw it.

SIMON: A boom and a white cloud.

BURNS: A big old cloud of just - gas just came up out of the ground.

SIMON: His first thought - pipeline.

BURNS: And I called my mom. I said, Mom, this pipeline blew up down here. We're on our way to come get y'all.

THELMA BROWN: Brae called me, and he was, like, frantic.

SIMON: This is his mom, Thelma Brown.

BROWN: The kids was outside playing, and I had the baby in the house.

SIMON: She got the kids inside, and she waited for her sons and nephew. And waited.

BROWN: They didn't come. They didn't come. They - 10 minutes - I knew they would have been here in five minutes, but they didn't come.

SIMON: Little did she know, the men were just down the road in the Cadillac, unconscious, victims of a mass poisoning from a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture that sent 45 people to the hospital. Right now, the U.S. only has about 8,000 km of these carbon dioxide pipelines. But given the country's climate solution priorities, that number is set to climb.

JESSE JENKINS: It's on the order of 100,000 km of CO2 pipelines.

SIMON: Jesse Jenkins is a professor at Princeton. His team looked at U.S. climate goals, and they see lots of carbon capture in the country's future. That's the idea of sucking up carbon dioxide from industry and power plants and storing it underground before it heats the planet. But when you suck up carbon dioxide, you often can't store it in the same place you trap it. You need to send it to a spot underground with the right geology, which can be far away - so pipelines. Jesse Arenivas is CEO of the pipeline company EnLink.

JESSE ARENIVAS: The market is going to be exponential.

SIMON: But people in Satartia fear that, three years since the incident in their town, America still has a lot to learn about carbon dioxide pipeline risks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #1: 911?

SIMON: When too much carbon dioxide gets in the air, it displaces oxygen, and cars can stop working. Combustion engines need oxygen to run. Here's a 911 call from that night in Satartia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't know what's going on. My car stopped. It won't move.

SIMON: This was also a problem for first responders, says Jerry Briggs, a local fire coordinator. He was on call that night, searching for victims in a two-seat ATV.

JERRY BRIGGS: I said, turn around. Keep this thing running. Don't let it die because I don't want to be stranded with nothing to get us out of here.

SIMON: And CO2 doesn't just affect cars. It affects health. Humans are always breathing some carbon dioxide, but too much causes a thirst for oxygen, disorientation, and things quickly go downhill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My daughter - she can't breathe. She's on the floor right now. My goodness, she's shaking. She's kind of drooling out of her mouth. I don't know if she's having a seizure or not. Could you please...

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Get somebody quick?

SIMON: Briggs and his team finally found Burns, his brother and cousin in the red Cadillac.

BRIGGS: Slumped over, foaming at the mouth, obviously unresponsive.

SIMON: They dragged the men to the sputtering vehicle, got them to the hospital. They all woke up. But for Burns, his health problems didn't end there. He, his brother and cousin were on oxygen for several months.

BURNS: Oxygen tank that we had to take around with us everywhere we went.

SIMON: Burns still has neurological issues three years later, headaches, difficulty concentrating. NPR spoke with the chief of staff of a local hospital who said his patients who experienced the pipeline rupture have seen an increase in the frequency and severity of their asthma attacks and chronic lung issues.

JARED HUFFMAN: We are on the verge of proposals to dramatically expand that CO2 pipeline network. It really is time to step back and think about whether this makes any sense.

SIMON: California Congressman Jared Huffman's on the House Committee for Pipeline Safety. He says there are still big gaps around regulating CO2 pipelines. The federal government hasn't established minimum safe zones around them. CO2 is odorless, and there's no current requirement to add odorants. And some types of CO2 aren't currently regulated at all. Federal regulators are working on new rules for these pipelines, and they found that the pipeline operator in Satartia, Denbury, violated existing rules. Denbury paid a $2.8 million penalty, and Burns and others in the community are suing the company. The government's report says although Denbury knew within a minute that there was an issue, they didn't immediately tell first responders. Here's Jack Willingham, emergency director for the county.

JACK WILLINGHAM: I never heard from them because they didn't. I mean, everybody knows they didn't. It just didn't happen. Nobody contacted us to let us know.

SIMON: He says, only after his fire chief called did the company confirm the rupture - more than 40 minutes after it happened. Willingham worries that, with thousands of miles of new pipelines, it will be that much harder to enforce the rules.

WILLINGHAM: I think they're dependent on the operators. You can't police yourself.

SIMON: Pipeline companies expanding across the South and Midwest tell NPR they're learning from Satartia. In statements, Denbury says they fully cooperated with regulators to investigate the incident and worked with local officials and residents to address the impacts. They say they remain committed to continually improving pipeline safety and mitigating the impact of climate change. But Congressman Huffman questions if this even is a climate solution. Most of the CO2 now in these pipelines is used to extract more oil. And he says new carbon capture projects could extend the life of fossil fuel operations.

HUFFMAN: That is really doubling down on the problem side of the climate crisis and not getting at the real solution, which is to stop extracting and burning these fossil fuels.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN LEAVES)

BURNS: The car stopped right there.

SIMON: Back in Satartia, Burns walked by the spot where he lost consciousness after the pipeline broke.

So how do you feel when you're here?

BURNS: Oh. I really don't even come down here too much more because, you know, it had me just in some type of way.

SIMON: He takes the long way to his mom's house.

BURNS: It get better with time. Yeah, I just try to keep my distance.

SIMON: As for communities getting new carbon dioxide pipelines, he hopes they get more safety precautions. But mainly, he feels sorry for them.

Julia Simon, NPR News, Satartia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASSIDY SONG, "MATRIMONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.