Throughout 2016, protesters gathered at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota with the hopes of preventing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from becoming active.  The pipeline, which spans over 1,000 miles and has multiple river crossings, was constructed to connect with a pipeline in Illinois that can deliver oil to Gulf Coast refineries. In theory, simple enough. In reality, this has environmental disaster written all over it.  For those stipulating that pipelines are the safest method of transporting oil, that by no means should be interpreted that the method is actually safe – only allegedly safer than alternatives. Case in point, there have been 363 pipeline accidents from 2013 to 2015, which translates to roughly an accident every 3 days and over 2 per week, according to Business Insider.

So, what happens if there is an accident near a river crossing, especially at a crossing with a major river such as the Mississippi or Missouri?  Contaminated drinking water. Destroyed wildlife habitats.  Millions upon millions of dollars in clean-up efforts. Before examining the potential fallout of an accident near the Mississippi or Missouri River, just take a look at all the river crossing the pipeline would make before reaching the destination in Illinois, courtesy of the New York Times.

  • Little Knife River (North Dakota)
  • Missouri River (North Dakota)
  • Cherry Creek (North Dakota)
  • Little Missouri River (North Dakota)
  • Knife River (North Dakota)
  • Heart River (North Dakota)
  • Lake Oahe (North Dakota)
  • Turtle Creek (South Dakota)
  • James River (South Dakota)
  • Big Sioux River (Iowa & South Dakota)
  • Rock River (Iowa)
  • Floyd River (Iowa)
  • Mill Creek (Iowa)
  • Little Sioux River (Iowa)
  • Cedar Creek (Iowa)
  • Des Moines River (Iowa)
  • S. Skunk River (Iowa)
  • Indian Creek (Iowa)
  • S. Skunk River (again) (Iowa)
  • Mississippi River (Iowa & Illinois)
  • Illinois River (Illinois)
  • Kaskaskia River (Illinois)


Spill In The Mississippi River 

According to the National Park Service, the Mississippi River, which has a watershed touching 31 states, provides daily drinking water for an estimated 15 to 18 million people, so a pipeline rupture near the top of the river, say in Iowa, wouldn’t be ideal. Obviously, the longer a spill leaks, the more damage that would be done, but essentially, any spill at the Keokuk, Iowa crossing would travel south via the river through the entire lower half of the country  until reaching the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be dispersed in the ocean similar to the BP oil spill of a few years ago. And if you want to know how fun that was, ask anyone who lived on the Gulf Coast. I doubt they want to relive that scenario.

Spill In The Missouri River

The longest river in the United States, which crosses the pipeline in North Dakota, has the potential to wreak havoc.   A spill at the North Dakota crossing point could see oil flow through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri before connecting with the Mississippi River approximately 156 miles south of the Keokuk, Iowa pipeline crossing mentioned above.  After flowing through and possibly contaminating the water supply in of the Great Plains, the oil spill would meet up with the Mississippi River and then contaminate the Mississippi River and Gulf Mexico as discussed above.

To see an illustration of oil flow in a potential spill, see Counter Current News Oil Spill Map.

Keeping in mind that the pipeline also crosses smaller, yet still significant, rivers such as the Illinois and Des Moines, there would be many potential paths for a spill to reach the Mississippi, since both of these rivers are also tributaries of the Mississippi.  

If the preparations for opening the DAPL are any indication of things to come, an environmental disaster seems more of a “when it happens” scenario than “if it happens” scenario. If you haven’t heard, there has already been a spill in South Dakota, and the pipeline isn’t even operational yet. Who needs the environment though, right?

Title Image via “Pipeline” by Ray Bodden is licensed under  CC BY 2.0