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Pipelines & Their Risks

Posted on September 28, 2022

Pipelines are generally considered a low risk means of transporting gasses, liquids, wastes, and other related products from one place to another. However, when incidents do occur, they are often catastrophic for the environment and general population. 

Pipelines fall into two main categories based on the product they transport: Natural Gas and Hazardous Liquid. Whether a pipeline has an elevated risk depends on the product being transported, the pipeline’s size, and its operating pressure.

Natural Gas Pipelines and Their Risks

The greatest risk with natural gas pipelines is the possibility of a fire or explosion. As pipelines get older and begin to corrode, if they are poorly built or improperly maintained, the chances of a leak or failure increase. As a result, natural gas, such as propane or methane, can explode without warning. Data published on pipeline incidents that occurred between 2010 to 2018 showed that natural gas pipeline accidents were responsible for the most injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%).

Explosion injuries can widely vary; for example: 

  • Blunt force trauma can occur from getting thrown or if debris from the explosion hits a person hard enough.
  • Traumatic brain injuries from the head hitting an object or vice versa. 
  • Severe burns from fire or heat the explosion creates.
  • Blast lung can occur without an obvious injury to the chest, causing respiratory difficulty or hypoxia, and is the most common cause of explosion-related fatalities.  
  • Smoke inhalation can cause temporary damage, but it can be life-threatening in other cases.

Victims typically have little time to react, resulting in more catastrophic or fatal injuries.

Hazardous Liquid Pipelines and Their Risks

Pipelines often can carry crude oil, which poses a significant risk to the environment and humans when an accident occurs. Between 2010 to 2018, hazardous liquids pipelines caused the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%). A spill can happen on the surface level, which is easier to identify, or underground, making them more challenging to catch. 

Risks for People

People can come into direct contact with crude oil by breathing in contaminated air or through touch. Indirect contact may occur by bathing in contaminated water or eating or drinking contaminated food and water. Contact with oil can cause a variety of symptoms. For example, short-term symptoms can include: 

  • Memory loss
  • Dizziness and irritability
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing and lung problems
  • Fatigue
  • Skin injuries
  • Rashes
  • Blisters
  • Eye sores
  • Confusion

Studies are still being done on the long-term health effects of oil spills, but they possibly include: 

  • Low platelet counts
  • Low hemoglobin levels
  • Breathing problems like chronic rhinosinusitis and issues with the airway
  • Liver problems
  • Lung problems
  • Heart issues
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Reproductive problems
  • Decreased immunity

Risks to the Environment

The effects of an oil spill on wildlife are often visible. Fish, mammals, or birds can become coated in oil. When they lick the oil and ingest toxic chemicals, it can damage their internal organs and cause problems with digestion and breathing. In severe cases, it leads to death from poisoning or suffocation.