There are thousands of miles of pipelines in the U.S. constantly shuttling gas, oil, and other fuels from state to state. And although you might not realize the pipes might be under your property, the companies that own them have to keep the land above the pipes clear in case of an emergency. And over the past year, residents in some communities have been told they need to dig up trees and remove sheds to keep the path clear. In some cases, it’s more than just an inconvenience. It’s costly. But the homeowners aren’t all mad at the pipeline companies. They’re mad at the people who built their houses. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:
There are thousands of miles of pipelines in the U.S., constantly shuttling gas, oil, and other fuels
from state to state. And although you might not realize the pipes might be under your property,
the companies that own them have to keep the land above the pipes clear in case of an
emergency. And over the past year, residents in some communities have been told they need to
dig up trees and remove sheds to keep the path clear. In some cases, it’s more than just an
inconvenience. It’s costly. But the homeowners aren’t all mad at the pipeline companies. They’re
mad at the people who built their houses. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber
Pipelines are a crucial link in the trip gasoline makes from the refinery to your car. They
crisscross the country, but most people don’t notice them.
Shelley Miller didn’t notice for years, even though she sleeps less than 30 feet from four of them
under her and her neighbors’ yard.
They carry gasoline, natural gas, heating oil and jet fuel.
In fact, more than 20-thousand gallons of fuel will race under Miller’s yard in St. Louis suburb of
St. Peters, Missouri by the time this story is over. She and her husband knew the pipes were there
when they bought the house… but they thought they were used for water or sewage.
The Millers didn’t realize they were wrong until last year… when Explorer Pipeline Company
came to make sure the land above its pipe was easily accessible.
For Miller, that meant two trees had to be removed, along with a shed that had become her
backyard’s equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer.
“We had planned to re-side our home. So we have siding we purchased one bit at a time to get to
that point. We don’t know where we’re going to put that. The lawn tractors, where we going to
put that? Where you going to move all this stuff?”
But that’s a small price to pay to make sure pipeline crews can get in fast if there’s an emergency.
Fred Low is a lawyer for Explorer Pipeline. He says companies like his have made an extra effort
in recent years to clear more urban or developed areas that have pipelines…
“In our industry, there have been some accidents in the past. There’s been national attention and
we want to do a better job. And to do a better job of running our pipeline we have to do a better
job maintaining our pipeline.”
And Miller understands that. She’s not mad at the companies because the pipelines were there
first. What upsets her is that 35 years ago, the city allowed the homes to be built so close to the
More than 160 homes in St. Peters, Missouri have at least one pipeline in their backyard. But
Alderman Jerry Hollingsworth says it’s hard to blame the city.
“There were no guidelines for a city on how close to build a home next to a pipeline 35 years
ago. So somebody came in and said, ‘I’m going to build some houses in here’ and the city said
And many towns across the country did the same thing. Todd Swanstrom teaches Public Policy
at Saint Louis University. He says more and more suburbs might have to deal with pipelines as
they keep growing. Adding a subdivision or even a strip mall sounds nice if it adds to tax
revenue. But there’s also safety to think about…
“If there were an explosion and people lost their lives from a pipeline, I think it would be a very
different situation. As it is, it seems to be one of those issues that has largely gone under the
But even if every growing suburb in the U.S. had rules for building on pipelines, there could still
be accidents… or deaths.
Ivel, Kentucky, San Jose, California and Whitehall, Pennsylvania are among communities where
pipelines have exploded in the past few years.
But Explorer Pipelines’ Fred Low says overall, pipeline companies have had an impressive safety
“Being next to a pipeline isn’t necessarily that bad. There are literally millions of people who live
by pipelines. And we will not let structures be built on our easements, so that’s why we want to
keep them visible so we can find out if we’re being encroached upon.”
Since the St. Peters pipelines were laid in 1971, the city’s population has exploded and expanded
along the pipelines.
For Shelley Miller… her efforts now focus on raising awareness for others. She and her neighbors
have organized a group that pushes cities and towns to enact better rules for how land around the
pipes is developed, and how people are told of the lines before they buy a house.
St. Peters now has a law restricting development around pipelines. But that only does so much
for Miller as she goes to bed every night just a few feet from all that gasoline.
“When we hear a loud boom, yeah, we sit up in bed. We think about it. There’s a risk with
everything you do in life, but when you have to live with it on a 24/7 basis and you don’t know
what the next minute’s gonna bring, it stays on your mind.”
For the GLRC, I’m Tom Weber.