Pipeline horror: looming threats of leaks keep communities in suspense


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Phil Brown

Our story is set in small-town America, as darkness falls. A threat runs underneath the peaceful countryside, and suddenly becomes unleashed in a cloud of noxious gas. A man, intent on investigating this mysterious mist, is tragically killed. This could be the plot of Stephen King’s 1980s classic The Mist, but tragically, it’s wholly non-fiction for one Nebraskan community.

Last week, the spooky story became painfully real for Phillip Hennig, a 59-year-old farmer, and his neighbors in the rural area surrounding Tekamah, Nebraska. A pipeline carrying the highly toxic farm fertilizer anhydrous ammonia sprung a leak a quarter-mile from Hennig’s house on Highway 75, and after discovering the smell, Hennig felt driven to investigate. The cloud of poisonous gas seems to have overpowered him almost immediately last Monday night, and his body would remain lying near the leak for hours until the Nebraska State Patrol hazardous materials division was able to remove his body in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

Neighbors were evacuated in the wake of his death, and the highway was closed for miles in both directions. The community has lost a respected and friendly member, and perhaps a little bit a feeling of safety when it comes to the pipeline of poison underneath their community.

Eerier still is the connection between this leak and other developments in our regional and national news. Everyone remembers the Keystone pipeline, a Canadian attempt to funnel oil underneath the Midwest, which was only stopped by the efforts of Nebraskan farmers and activists from around the country. The Keystone pipeline’s sequel is the Dakota Access Pipeline, another planned extension of a crude oil pipeline, which will come south from the Dakotas, through Iowa and into Illinois. The DAPL would endanger the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply and historic, sacred sites, in addition to threatening the Missouri river.

The project’s progression has met with increasing backlash, most notably from a wide coalition of
Native American groups. The pipeline that killed Phillip Hennig is the Magellan Pipeline, a 1,100-mile line from Texas to Minnesota, and is only one of two such pipelines in the nation. While an airborne toxic event like the Tekamah leak does not seem as dangerous to the environment as an oil pipeline leak, it is certainly more dangerous to individual human beings.

The Magellan company also maintains oil pipelines across the United States. This leak of anhydrous, by the same people responsible for several oil pipelines, should spook anyone in the area of either the Keystone XL pipeline extension of the DAPL extension. An oil leak wouldn’t have killed Phillip Hennig, but it would’ve caused immense pollution. The Tekamah leak illustrates the inevitability of a certain kind of horror story: the pipeline leak. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and where, and what.

For Hennig’s former neighbors, the risk may still be small enough to balance out the gain of anhydrous’ effect on their crops. For the rest of us, any oil pipeline should be seen as a monster to be slain.