The Humbolt Fire Department, as seen on Nov. 18, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A Minnehaha County commissioner wants volunteer firefighters in the state’s most populous county to ask for safety equipment from two carbon pipeline companies for use in the event of a pipeline failure — something the companies say they’re willing to do.
The suggestion from Commissioner Joe Kippley came last week on the heels of a meeting in Baltic with rural fire chiefs, in reference to the companies behind the proposed pipelines: Summit Carbon Solutions and Navigator CO2 Ventures.
“Just putting that on the record that we’re having those conversations,” Kippley said. “I think that it’s important to make sure all of our emergency fire departments have what they need, but especially volunteers. The last thing that I want to do is degrade the willingness and ability of people to do that type of civic engagement.”
Some fire chiefs contacted by South Dakota Searchlight expressed doubt that an influx of new equipment would help them respond to a pipeline rupture. Officials with the city of Sioux Falls Fire Rescue said it’s too early to tell what their needs might be, given the uncertainty surrounding the projects’ future.
But Kippley’s suggestion points to an animating concern for opponents of the pipelines: a catastrophic failure. The explosion of a carbon pipeline in Mississippi in 2019 – which killed no one but led to the evacuation of 200 people and saw 45 people seek medical attention – has been a frequently shared anecdote at local and state-level meetings on the projects.
Minnehaha County commissioners heard from opponents concerned about the potential of emergencies on the same day Kippley made his remarks.
“If there’s a problem, if there were an emergency with that pipeline, it would be catastrophic for our farming operation,” said Bruce Burkhardt, who raises hogs and grows crops near the proposed Navigator pipeline route, as does his son. “It would be an insurmountable financial loss, plus catastrophic for the family farm that we have with kids and grandkids and livestock on our farm.”
The question of emergency response is important for rural states like South Dakota, where first responders for the majority of the land area tend to be unpaid volunteer firefighters. Their departments often struggle to outfit their firefighters with gear like self-contained breathing apparatuses, which can cost thousands of dollars and come with expiration dates.
That’s one reason counties ink mutual aid agreements with neighboring departments.
In Minnehaha County, departments lean on those, as well as on the South Dakota Office of Homeland Security’s South Dakota Taskforce 1, which pulls together firefighters with specialized training and expertise from Aberdeen, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Watertown for missing persons searches, structure collapses and a host of other emergency situations.
It could be years before any carbon pipeline is built, if one is built at all, but those agreements could signal the way communities might respond to a severe incident.
“We can work independently, or we can work collectively as a team,” said Division Chief Mark Bukovich of Sioux Falls Fire Rescue. “We can grow the resources and the personnel larger if we need to, depending on what the incident size is or the location of it.”
Pipeline companies: emergency response built in
Representatives from the companies proposing the two carbon pipelines say they’ve met with emergency managers in every county along the routes and told South Dakota Searchlight they’ll provide equipment as needed.
The projects from Navigator CO2 Ventures and Summit Carbon Solutions have similar goals: to capture carbon produced by Midwestern ethanol plants, liquefy it, and pump it through underground pipelines for sequestration in Illinois and North Dakota, respectively. Pumping carbon underground keeps it out of the atmosphere, where it’s a heat-trapping gas contributing to climate change. Sequestering carbon can also qualify ethanol plants for tax credits.
Carbon pipelines carry safety risks. The companies characterize the risk as low and the likelihood of severe and catastrophic risk as even lower.
Both pipelines would be monitored remotely 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and each would have emergency shutoff protocols in place to prevent hazardous releases.
Even so, the companies say they take safety seriously and are prepared to invest as necessary to insure local first responders are prepared.
“As part of Navigator’s plan to develop this infrastructure safely and to last, our goal is to work with communities across the project’s footprint,” Navigator spokesperson Andrew Bates said via email. “Navigator will provide the equipment and training needed and we are working with these departments to assess their needs. If a department identifies a need for additional resources, Navigator will work to provide said resources.”
Summit spokesperson Courtney Ryan offered a similar response.
“The company will supply the response equipment needed to aid in protecting the public and trainings will be conducted as we move closer to operations,” she wrote.
The companies also shared fact sheets on safety that characterize carbon pipelines as proven and safe technology – another point of contention during public meetings on the projects.
Finally, each company’s representative noted that any updated federal safety regulations for design and response would be incorporated into final project design.
The federal government is reviewing safety standards for carbon pipelines, and California legislators passed a law barring the construction of new underground CO2 pipelines until those standards are finalized.
Some South Dakota residents are concerned that approval of the pipelines in their state before regulations are finalized would mean lower safety standards – something the companies deny.
“There is not ‘grandfathering’ of existing infrastructure when it comes to safety compliance,” Bates wrote. “If/when new regulations are finalized, we will update the infrastructure to comply.”
Critics: Nothing we can do
Those words have not swayed outspoken critics like Don Johnson, chief of the Valley Springs Volunteer Fire Department.
Carbon gas is not flammable or explosive, but it can be poisonous at high concentrations, and a large enough plume can keep vehicles from operating.
The federal Department of Transportation report on the pipeline incident in Mississippi spells out some of the hazards to human health.
“Carbon dioxide is considered minimally toxic by inhalation and is classified as an asphyxiant, displacing the oxygen in air. Symptoms of CO2 exposure may include headache and drowsiness. Individuals exposed to higher concentrations may experience rapid breathing, confusion, increased cardiac output, elevated blood pressure, and increased arrhythmias,” the report says. “Extreme CO2 concentrations can lead to death by asphyxiation.”
If the worst were to happen, Johnson said, “there ain’t a damned thing we can do about it.”
“They’ve got nothing to give me,” Johnson said. “I went to one of their safety classes already. He said, ‘It’ll kill you.’ I already knew that.”
Johnson’s 25 volunteers respond to between 115 and 130 calls a year. The department gets some funding from the county and the city, but still struggles to keep up with gear replacements. Each firefighter gets a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for use during fires or when responding to emergencies involving hazardous gasses.
Those items are expensive, but Johnson contends that even new gear wouldn’t be enough if a cloud of carbon were to escape in spite of pipeline protocols.
“What, are you going to buy SCBAs for everybody in the county?” Johnson said. “And those things have an expiration date.”
Hartford Volunteer Fire Chief Bryon Shumaker isn’t a vocal critic of the pipelines, but he’s aware of the new potential for danger a pipeline could bring. If there’s a disaster, as he understands it, “there’s absolutely nothing we could do for it except try to evacuate.”
“It’s really unknown, because there’s not too many instances where we’ve ever had to deal with it,” said Shumaker, whose 36 firefighters respond to around 400 calls a year.
Partnerships aid in emergencies
It’s too early on in the approval process for the pipelines for first responders to dive too deeply into plans for a pipeline rupture, Sioux Falls Emergency Manager Regan Smith and Captain Bukovich said.
“It would be premature to do any purchase of any additional equipment or training at this point,” Smith told South Dakota Searchlight last week. “If it came to fruition, we would get into those details.”
A carbon pipeline wouldn’t represent Minnehaha County’s only pressure point for potential disaster, though.
For structure fires, metro area fire departments have a “tender task force” to truck water from “water tenders” to rural areas without fire hydrants. For larger incidents, hazmat teams from the South Dakota Taskforce 1 can be called in to deal with chemical threats.
Service area boundaries go out the window if a train derails, an explosion occurs or a massive fire breaks out across them, Bukovich said.
“As far as jurisdictional boundaries go, if someone needs help, we can go,” Bukovich said.
Area departments have summoned the assistance of Taskforce 1 several times in recent years, as well.
In 2006, officials in Sioux Falls had to evacuate 200 people after a tanker truck exploded on West 12th Street and leaked 8,500 gallons of gasoline.
In 2004, an ammonia leak at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls sent 76 people to area hospitals.
“We had to go in with their incident management team, their hazmat teams to deal with that. There was some sheltering in place, that type of thing,” Smith said. “ That was a significant event for our community.”
For pipelines in particular, there’s an extra layer of training. The South Dakota Pipeline Association, a collaborative group of companies that operate pipelines in the state, meets annually to conduct “tabletop exercises,” which are essentially emergency management role-playing games that walk players through the steps of a disaster.
If it earns approval from the various permitting authorities from state and federal regulators, Summit Carbon Solutions says it will “conduct tabletop exercises and training to ensure communities are able to effectively respond in the unlikely event of a release.”
That’s not enough for some critics, who point to the slow response from the Texas-based operator of the Mississippi carbon pipeline, which drew a $4 million fine.
“This is something new. There’s never been CO2 pipelines that are this long built any place in the world,” said Dennis Anderson of Valley Springs. “We are concerned about our safety.”
From Emergency Manager Smith’s perspective, though, the state’s emergency response teams are prepared to do their part to be as ready as they can be.
“If it comes to fruition, we would definitely look a lot harder and reach out to other communities,” Smith said. “They’ve had a similar system up in North Dakota for 20 years, a 100-mile CO2 pipeline. So we would talk to those fire departments up there, and ask them to share their experience and their plans.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original story included an incorrect title for Mark Bukovich.
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