A banner with the words CO2 Pipelines and a red slash hangs from a barn in a cornfield
An anti-pipeline protest banner hangs from a barn near Gibson City, Illinois. Credit: Pam Richart

Safety concerns are at the heart of opposition to a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline in central Illinois, which would connect an ethanol plant to a proposed sequestration site about six miles away.

The pipeline proposed by One Earth Energy is much shorter than carbon dioxide pipelines that were previously proposed in Illinois and then tabled by Navigator CO2 Ventures and Wolf Carbon Solutions. Those pipelines would have stretched through hundreds of miles of farmland.

But One Earth’s proposed pipeline starts just west of downtown Gibson City, at the company’s ethanol plant. Local leaders say county and city emergency responders, relying largely on volunteer firefighters, are ill-equipped to prepare for possible leaks or ruptures.

Ford County Emergency Management Agency and Local Emergency Planning Committee coordinator Terry Whitebird says the county cannot afford to do the necessary training and planning for a potential disaster and evacuation, as noted in testimony filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which will hold public hearings in May on the company’s request for a necessary certificate of authority.

It also cannot afford to buy electric municipal vehicles that could be necessary during a carbon dioxide leak, since gas and diesel vehicles can fail when the heavy gas displaces oxygen needed for combustion. That means ambulances and other emergency vehicles could be stalled just when they are needed to help rescue or evacuate residents.

Whitebird also noted that the local hospital has only eight patient rooms and one emergency physician on call, meaning it could be overwhelmed in case of a carbon dioxide leak. The next closest hospitals, in Bloomington and Champaign, are each 40 minutes away.

Opponents of carbon dioxide pipelines often point to a 2020 disaster in the tiny village of Satartia, Mississippi, where a Denbury Resources pipeline rupture and explosion left people sickened and struggling to breathe. At least 45 people were hospitalized, and some report lasting health impacts.

Whitebird envisioned a similar disaster unfolding in Gibson City, which has a much larger population of 3,400.

“The wind in this area is generally from west to east, and any leak or rupture will likely result in the CO2 gas drifting into Gibson City — a potential exposure of 25% of the population of the County,” says Whitebird’s testimony before the commerce commission.

Sally Lasser moved from Joliet, near Chicago, to cultivate forest and native prairie on land near Gibson City she named R Wildflower Farm & Fields, to honor her late father, Richard Lasser, who planted 5,000 trees on the land and put much of it in conservation easements.

One Earth’s proposed sequestration site is near Lasser’s land, and her name is on a list of affected landowners filed by the company. When Lasser first heard about the proposal, she was open to understanding the benefits to the local ethanol industry, and allowed the company to host a meeting on her porch last summer.

At first, “I was given no reason to be concerned about the danger of this project,” she said. She asked questions about truck traffic and lights during construction. Later on, other residents and advocates explained the risks of a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture.

“If I were to try to start my truck, it’s not going to start, so I’m going to take off on foot unless I have an electric car,” she said. “How do I know which direction to go in, because I can’t see (the carbon dioxide gas). Say the emergency responders have electric vehicles. Are they going to come to my farm and scour all 160 acres to find me? Are they going to look up in the loft of my barn because that’s where I was when I passed out from this?”

Plume questions

Local leaders and advocates have demanded that One Earth produce models of how a carbon dioxide plume would spread in case of a rupture, but pipeline developers are not required to do so. The company filed plume modeling with the commerce commission in late March, but it is considered confidential and can only be viewed by official stakeholders in the process.

Kathy Campbell, an audiologist and Southern Illinois University professor emeritus who has reviewed proposals for the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies, said she “had reservations” about the quality of the modeling.

Local leaders previously obtained modeling done by Navigator for its proposal, though the company never officially released that information. Campbell analyzed Navigator’s plume modeling to predict how a plume from One Earth’s pipeline might behave.

She concluded that residents closest to One Earth’s proposed pipeline would have no way to evacuate before being overcome by dangerous levels of carbon dioxide if the pipeline ruptured. Based on Navigator’s modeling, residents within 1,971 feet of the One Earth pipeline would be in the highest hazard zone, Campbell testified. One Earth’s proposal shows multiple residences and businesses within 1,200 feet of the pipeline, and at least two residences less than 700 feet away, based on GIS analysis by pipeline opponents.

While carbon dioxide at low concentrations is harmless to humans, at higher concentrations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture consider it a serious health hazard, both because of its toxicity and the fact that it displaces oxygen at ground level.

In a March 27 filing, One Earth promised that it would provide carbon dioxide monitors and emergency oxygen supplies to landowners along the route.

“Imagine if everyone along a pipeline corridor had to have oxygen, and know how to use it,” said Jenny Cassel, a senior attorney for Earthjustice who has worked on proposed state legislation to regulate such pipelines. “That’s pretty terrifying. What if a kid is home alone?”

Carbon dioxide is gaseous under normal atmospheric conditions, but can be turned to liquid at high pressure, for transport in pipelines. If that pressure is suddenly released, carbon dioxide converts to its solid state and takes on a frigid temperature, then evaporates or “melts” into gas.

“If there’s a rupture, it immediately turns into dry ice crystals — it comes out at negative 109 degrees,” explained Campbell, who lived in the path of the Navigator pipeline proposal. “If you breathe those or those hit your eyes, you get frostbite of the eyes, mouth, ears.”

The toxicity of carbon dioxide at high concentrations can also immediately damage the body, Campbell continued.

“And somehow you’re supposed to try to escape while your vision is going, your hearing is going.”

The frigid temperature of released high-pressure carbon dioxide also affects the steel pipelines, experts say, making them brittle and allowing a small rupture to quickly “unzip” into a major fissure.

At concentrations of 40,000 ppm, carbon dioxide is designated by the CDC as “immediately dangerous to life or health,” and lower concentrations are considered perilous for certain lengths of exposure, Campbell wrote in testimony before the commission. She cites academic studies predicting that dangerous levels could be reached within five minutes of a rupture.

“This pipeline does not provide any benefit to those whose lives are placed at risk along the pipeline,” Campbell’s testimony continued. “For them, the risk/benefit assessment is all risk and no benefit.”

Mark Maple, senior gas engineer for the Illinois Commerce Commission, emphasized safety risks in his testimony recommending the commission deny One Earth’s proposal.

“In my opinion the current safety regulations, as they pertain to carbon dioxide pipelines, are not sufficient to guarantee the public’s safety in all possible scenarios,” he testified. “Therefore, I cannot say with certainty that all citizens along the route will be safe if a rupture were to occur.”

Ripple effects

While residents are concerned about the One Earth pipeline in its own right, they also fear its construction would mean more carbon dioxide pipeline proposals, to connect to One Earth’s pipeline and sequestration site.

One Earth’s original proposal called for a pipeline that could handle about 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide produced annually by the ethanol plant, and noted that the pipeline would serve third-party customers. In late March, the company revised its proposal to reduce the pipeline’s capacity, from a 16-inch to 12.75-inch diameter, though it said the pipeline still offers some capacity for additional users.

“Reducing the total potential capacity of the OES pipeline will reduce the volumes that could be released in the event of a pipeline leak or rupture and therefore the CO2 concentrations at various distances from the pipeline in the event of a break,” Mark Ditsworth, One Earth vice president of technology and special projects, said in testimony filed March 27.

REX American Resources, One Earth’s parent company, also owns ethanol plants in Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota and another town in Illinois. Residents worry that the company would seek to connect these plants to the sequestration site, to collect tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration.

The Navigator and Wolf pipelines were both proposed to connect multiple ethanol plants to sequestration sites in Illinois’ Mt. Simon sandstone geology. Both companies withdrew their proposals from commerce commission consideration last fall in the face of opposition from landowners. The commission invited Wolf to reapply if it addressed concerns and requests for more information.

Other problems

Safety concerns are not the only area where critics say One Earth’s proposal is lacking. The company has not yet secured needed permits and approvals for the sequestration site it has proposed in neighboring McLean County. The Illinois Commerce Commission does not need to approve sequestration sites, but the county in December denied a necessary special use permit, and the company hasn’t obtained other state and federal permits.

The company has also not secured leases or easements from the approximately 20 landowners along the proposed pipeline route. Pipeline developers can invoke eminent domain to secure rights of way if the project is determined by the commission to be in the public interest.

In testimony, Maple said eminent domain is intended to make sure a minority of landowners can’t block a project that a majority supports. He testified that eminent domain might not be considered appropriate if the company has obtained few or no voluntary easements.

One Earth “has yet to acquire any of the necessary easements” for the pipeline, Maple’s testimony states. “This demonstrates that the Company has failed to show that it has negotiated, or even begun to negotiate, in good faith with landowners…The lack of progress with landowner negotiations at this stage of the proceeding is highly concerning.”

On March 27, the company filed testimony regarding a revised plan that shortened the planned route by a mile and reduced the number of injection wells planned at the sequestration site, from three to two. Ditsworth told the commission this was to address landowner “preferences.”

In testimony, Ditsworth said the company “has had significant success negotiating with landowners for necessary land rights” to build two injection wells for sequestration. He said the company had acquired the rights to almost all the pore space needed around one of the injection wells and almost half the pore space needed around another.

Lasser was glad to hear of the removal of one injection well and reduction in the size of the pipeline, but she is still deeply concerned about safety.

“I’m no longer sandwiched between two (injection) wells, but I’m still in too close a proximity, I would still be in great danger,” she said. “People need to realize how terribly unsafe it is. We need leaders that put people and their safety before private business.”

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.