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By Michael Lachenmeyer
In 1971, eight oil companies celebrated a huge milestone for the future of their businesses. In just 20 months, work crews laid down 1,400 miles of pipeline stretching from the Gulf Coast to Chicago — making a stop in Tulsa along the way.
It was a monumental feat of engineering that sent 720,000 barrels a day flowing from Gulf refineries to customers across the Midwest. The conglomerate named their project the Explorer Pipeline and established a Tulsa-based subsidiary named Explorer Pipeline Company to maintain it.
Today, the pipeline is raising more eyebrows in concern than wonder as activists highlight issues that could lead to a potential disaster in Historic Greenwood District, one of the nation’s most well-known Black communities.
Activists raise red flags over Explorer Pipeline
With Explorer Pipeline Company’s 51st birthday fast approaching this October, local activists spearheaded by Fred Storer, a former oilman and trained chemical and environmental engineer, are raising red flags.
They claim Explorer Pipeline Company is failing to maintain the aging pipeline properly. They’ve documented numerous examples of the land above Explorer littered with trees, fences, and other obstructions. They are worried that should a leak or other accident happen, these obstructions impair any response.
Explorer Pipeline Co. refutes this claim.
“We have a very rigorous integrity program that includes aerial inspection of the pipeline right-of-way (ROW) at least weekly as well as foot patrols in developed areas where canopies exist for the environmental setting. The ROW is maintained (mowed and trees trimmed) on a regular basis,” the company told The Black Wall Street Times.
Butane: a highly flammable petrochemical
Mr. Storer and other activists are also worried about what Explorer is pumping. According to Explorer Pipeline Co., they are moving gasoline, diluent (used to move Canadian tar sands) and butane through the pipeline. Activists believe this is cause for concern because these petrochemicals are very easy to ignite if there is a leak.
One such accident killed two 10-year-old boys and a high schooler at a public park in Bellingham, Washington in 1999. Another incident involving Explorer led to the release of 546,000 gallons of motor gasoline in Greenville, Texas in 2000. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Yet, Tulsa may not be so lucky if a leak happens here. According to a study commissioned by Mr. Storer, more than 3,300 homes and an elementary school pass within 1/8th of a mile of Explorer as it goes northeast moving through Glenpool, Jenks, Tulsa, and Broken Arrow.
According to Mr. Storer, Explorer Pipeline Co. is injecting butane into Explorer to increase the volume of diluent flowing north up to the maximum allowed. Activists are concerned that were the pipeline to leak, a major neighborhood fire could result.
Greenwood at risk
This isn’t the only concern to arise from Explorer’s use of butane. In 2015, Base Inc. was contracted by Keyera Corp. to offload butane from a branchline of the South Kansas and Oklahoma railroad in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood district and transport it to Glenpool by truck. From there, Keyera injects butane into the pipeline.
In 2018, there was a public outcry over the Greenwood facility as developers hoped to install the USA BMX HQ and Hall of Fame right next door. Developers were worried that should an accident happen there, it would involve BMX and the Greenwood neighborhood.
The EPA requires industrial facilities that handle hazardous chemicals to report on the worst-case scenario for their operation, but Base Inc. is only required to report on the release of vapors from a single railcar. There are currently as many as 26 next door to BMX.
A fire could involve more than one railcar and the semi trucks. The consequences are difficult to predict but in similar situations explosion debris has traveled a quarter of a mile. Today that would include the BMX Hall of Fame, Vernon Chapel AME Church, Oklahoma Educational TV, the interstate and a good section of Oklahoma State University’s Tulsa campus.
Some businesses moved out after Explorer moved in
According to an article written by Sarah Terry-Cobo of the Journal Record, most Greenwood residents were not aware of the risks the butane loading center posed when it was built. Yet, once word of this threat came to light, Mayor G.T. Bynum met with J. Scott Dickman, CEO of Base Inc., and helped him move his business to its current location at 5307 East Pine Street, on the northeast side of Tulsa.
It took J. Scott Dickman three years to move his business from Greenwood to East Pine Street. Yet, just a few months after Mr. Dickman’s departure, his old landlord started their own butane trans-loading business at the sight. WATCO Transportation Services own the South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad that goes through Tulsa, and they’re now responsible for moving butane through Greenwood.
Butane trans-loaders violating zoning codes?
Both companies are currently operating in violation of Tulsa’s zoning codes. According to Tulsa’s Revised Zoning and Property Ordinances high-impact manufacturing and industry is defined as “Manufacturing and industrial uses that regularly use hazardous chemicals or procedures or that produce hazardous byproducts or explosive hazards.”.
Currently, both butane trans-loading operations are located in districts zoned for light and medium industry, respectively. According to Mr. Storer, if butane has to be offloaded in Tulsa, the best place to do it is at the refineries. They enjoy a rail connection and are located far enough away from residential areas to minimize the human cost of any accident.
The bigger issue here concerns the city government. In 2018, Mayor Bynum thought it was a bad idea to have butane offloaded right in the heart of Greenwood. It’s unclear what has changed or why the Mayor and the City Council failed to enforce their own zoning ordinances. Many residents already consider Tulsa’s political elite responsible for turning Greenwood into hallowed ground once. There’s no reason for man-made tragedy to strike the city again.
If you live near an oil pipeline, call 811 before you dig.
* WATCO Transportation Services, Keyera Corp., Base Inc., and the Mayor’s Office were contacted for this story. None of them responded to our requests in time for publication.*
Michael Lachenmeyer is a freelance writer for The Black Wall Street Times. He was born in Lake Forest, California and raised in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He attended Loyola University Chicago where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He minored in history. In 2021, he moved to Tulsa to work for City Year at Nathan Hale Highschool. For the past year, he’s served as a Hub Coordinator for Tulsa’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement. Today he is a graduate student attending the University of Chicago.