The next activists who try to burn a hole through the Dakota Access pipeline may find that carbon pollution is the least of their problems.
The $3.8 billion project is expected to begin running oil this week, as authorities investigate two separate incidents of vandalism in Iowa and South Dakota involving holes torched in pipes located at above-ground valve sites.
No oil was flowing through the pipes, but if there had been, the consequences could have been disastrous, said Brigham A. McCown, former acting administrator of the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
“If they had tried to utilize a torch to burn through the sidewall, they would have likely ignited the oil inside and been killed instantly,” said Mr. McCown, now an infrastructure consultant. “This is a serious safety issue and cannot be justified under any basis. Those responsible should face severe criminal penalties.”
The vandalism comes as another worry for Energy Transfer Partners, which endured months of costly delays last year as the Standing Rock Sioux and protesters fought the final 1,100-foot stretch of the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline in North Dakota.
The company said Monday in a status report filed with a federal court that it planned to begin flowing oil this week despite the “physical attacks along the pipeline that pose threats to life, physical safety, and the environment.”
“These coordinated attacks will not stop line-fill operations,” said ETP attorney William Scherman in the court filing, which was heavily redacted. “With that in mind, the company now believes that oil may flow sometime this week.”
Craig Stevens, spokesman for the pro-pipeline Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, said the latest incidents, which he called “terrorist activities,” would not derail the project.
“Unable to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline through politics or in the courts, eco-terrorists have now turned to violent and lawless activities in an unfortunate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to thwart this lawful project,” Mr. Stevens said.
So far nobody has been arrested or taken responsibility for the damage. A small hole was discovered burned or cut into the pipe Friday at an unfenced valve site southeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said Lincoln County chief sheriff’s Deputy Chad Brown.
The FBI, state and local officials are involved. “We’ve got an ongoing investigation. We’re getting tips coming in. Hopefully we’ll be able to identify and arrest a suspect,” said Deputy Brown.
The situation was similar at a valve site northeast of Oskaloosa, Iowa, where the Mahaska County sheriff said someone apparently crawled under a fence and used a blowtorch to burn a hole in a relief check valve sometime between March 3 and 13.
“The pipeline is currently pressurized with nitrogen, which was leaking from the hole,” according to KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids.
Jay O’Hara, a spokesman for Climate Direct Action, an environmental group with a history of pipeline vandalism, said his group had no involvement in the Dakota Access hole-burning.
“I’ve done a little digging and I absolutely don’t know who it was,” Mr. O’Hara said.
Five activists affiliated with the group were arrested in October for trying to shut down a pipeline bringing in oil from Canada, but their modus operandi wasn’t the same. For one, those vandals appeared to be far more concerned about safety.
The Climate Direct Action culprits called the company to let them know what they were doing, then cut fences to reach emergency valves at five pipelines in four states and shut them off. The activists also turned themselves in and even provided video of their actions.
A mistrial was declared Feb. 1 in the case of the first activist to be tried, Ken Ward of Corbett, Oregon, after a Skagit County jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Mr. O’Hara refused to condemn the Dakota Access vandalism, saying, “The reality is these pipeline companies are trying to burn a big [expletive] hole in the planet.”
Dakota Access is slated to transport about 470,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken field in North Dakota to shipping and storage facilities in Patoka, Illinois.
Dakota Access spokeswoman Vicki Granado declined to comment on the vandalism.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.