Ruptured Pipeline Spills 300,000 Gallons of Diesel, Killing Thousands of Animals in Louisiana

The oil pipeline near New Orleans failed inspection a year before it ruptured, according to reports.

Pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba) coated in oil

Natalie Fobes/Getty Images

December usually brings good tidings and holiday cheer. This year, however, it brought a most unwelcome gift to the people of Louisiana: an avoidable oil spill that killed thousands of birds, fish, and other animals.

The spill took place on Dec. 27 in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, according to the Associated Press (AP), which cites documents from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It occurred when the 16-inch-diameter Meraux Pipeline ruptured, releasing over 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the bayou—including two artificial ponds called “borrow pits” that were home to significant wildlife, as well as an environmentally sensitive area near the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile canal that has been closed to maritime traffic since 2009.

PHMSA says the spill occurred just a couple hundred feet from the Mississippi River, while pipeline owner Collins Pipeline Co. says it happened 4.5 miles away.

Either way, Collins Pipeline did not publicly disclose the spill but appears to be engaged in active cleanup efforts. So far it claims to have skimmed and recovered some 315,000 gallons of spilled fuel mixed with water.

Although the company has not released a statement about the spill, a spokesperson told the AP in an email that the pipeline has been repaired at a cost of $500,000, that pipeline operations have already resumed, and that a formal environmental damage assessment is still pending.

“Although we continue to remediate and monitor the area, on-water recovery operations have been completed,” Michael Karlovich, vice president of Collins Pipeline parent company PBF Energy said in the email.

What’s especially upsetting about the event, according to environmentalists, is that it could have been prevented: The cause of the spill was “localized corrosion and metal loss,” according to federal regulators, who inspected the 42-year-old pipeline a year prior and found significant external corrosion along a 22-foot section of pipe at the same site where the oil spill took place. The pipe had lost up to 75% of its metal in some places, reports the AP, which says damage should have been repaired immediately but was postponed, instead, when a second inspection purportedly showed less severe corrosion.

In a statement to PHMSA, PBF blamed its negligence on regulators. In October 2021, it told PHMSA that it had completed repairs on another corroded section of the pipeline, but was still awaiting permits so that it could repair the first section.

“Delayed permit or not, it’s maddening to learn that this pipeline has been known to be severely corroded for over 14 months and yet the pipeline remained in place,” Bill Caram, executive director of advocacy group the Pipeline Safety Trust, said in a press release. “It’s especially maddening to learn that Collins Pipeline’s initial analysis deemed the pipe in such poor condition that it warranted an immediate repair.”

In fact, PHMSA has initiated six enforcement cases against Collins Pipeline since 2007, including a 2011 warning for failing to conduct regular external corrosion tests. It has not, however, issued any fines or penalties against the company.

While PBF and PHMSA debate who’s to blame, what’s less ambiguous is the spill’s devastating effect on wildlife: A spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality told the AP the spill killed some 2,300 fish—minnows, bait fish, shad, gar, sunfish, and small bass—and more than 100 other animals, including 32 snakes, 32 birds, several eels, and a blue crab. Another 130 harmed animals have been captured and will require rehabilitation, including more than 70 alligators, 23 birds, 20 snakes, and 12 turtles.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 78 alligators have been rescued. Of those, three had to be euthanized and 33 have been cleaned and released into the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge—located 10 miles from the spill site—as of Friday. Of the 23 live birds found, three survived.

The AP reports that federal records show noise-making cannons were set up in the area to keep birds and other animals away from the spill site.