An oil pipeline company responsible for the largest oil spill on United States soil wants to double the capacity of a pipeline through Wisconsin and Michigan –and the public is appropriately concerned.
Edmonton-based Enbridge Energy wants to double the capacity of its oil pipeline that runs across Wisconsin and Michigan before it heads further east. The company transports oil from the tar sands in northern Alberta into the states. The $3.2 billion expansion would increase the flow of oil from North Dakota through Wisconsin to Chicago and then through Michigan and the very same pipeline that burst two years ago.
Enbridge, Canada’s largest exporter of tar sands crude, was in charge of the same pipeline when it sprung a leak through a 6 1/2 foot tear almost two years ago, dumping more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan. Parts of that river are closed to the public after a very difficult clean-up operation that has so far cost $765 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the government began keeping records in 1968. The cause of the tear has not been reported, but the spill was exacerbated when pipeline operators in Edmonton kept misreading warning alarms that the spill was happening. In fact, operators restarted the pipeline twice while oil was spewing out the leak. It wasn’t until a human observer got to the pipe—18 hours after it started– that they discovered it was actually a leak.
Enbridge is not a player in the controversial Keystone Pipeline that would take oil from the tar sands across the middle of the U.S. to refineries in Texas. Its pipeline, being already in place, could be an alternative to Keystone, so goes the strategists, especially since it heads east to the lucrative east coast market. There is also a concern that Enbridge will start exporting the tar sands oil abroad from the east coast with its improved delivery system.
The National Wildlife Federation has warned that U.S. regulations do not adequately protect the water supply from oil spills. The common thinking in the oil industry is not that “if” an oil spill will happen, it’s when. Canada’s National Energy Board predicts that major oil spills will occur once every 16 years for every 600 miles of pipeline.
Environmentalists say that Enbridge is trying to dodge even those weak federal regulations. Enbridge is applying for permits to increase the flow in the line by saying that it is doing “maintenance” to the pipe, not a rebuild. The company can split hairs with the rules that way by essentially just replacing the pumps that move the oil through the line.
The feds then can’t stick their noses into the structural integrity of the pipe, the pumps and how they’re put together. Environmental impact statements are also avoided since “maintenance” falls under existing permits. Its Wisconsin plan upgrades three pumps, adds another, and increases storage capacity.
Wisconsin’s largest daily newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, opined recently that, sure, the company has a bad track record, but that with serious oversight of the operation, Enbridge should be allowed to expand. So far, that oversight hasn’t been thorough. The Michigan part of the plan ultimately increases the size of the pipe in the line that sprung a leak.
Environmentalists argue that it’s an expansion and should be reviewed. They also point out that it’s an international pipeline which is all subject to federal review, but Enbridge’s tactics are using easier to approve state permits. It’s a strategy that so far has worked well for the company.
The 2010 pipe leak has been Enbridge’s highest profile lapse so far, and its bank account has been continually drained due to fines, perhaps a testimony of the complexities of transporting oil. Some observers would say the company just has a bad track record when it comes to maintenance. Its history is full of leaks and safety violations.
Enbridge paid $1.1 million in fines to the state of Wisconsin two years ago for air pollution violations related to its refinery and pipeline operation in Superior. It paid $700,000 in fines for a 2003 explosion that killed seven people in Canada; paid $2.4 million for safety violations in 2007 that killed two in Minnesota; $50,000 for a 2009 fire in Ontario and $57,800 in 2006 for violations in Louisiana and Oklahoma, among others.
The company’s record of leaks is longer, however.
* January 2001: Enbridge’s Energy Transportation North Pipeline leaked 23,900 barrels of crude oil into a slough near Hardisty, Alberta.
* July 2002: A 34-inch diameter steel pipeline ruptured in a marsh west of Cohasset, Minnesota. To prevent 6,000 barrels (252,000 gallons) of crude oil from reaching the Mississippi River, the company set the oil on fire. The plume of smoke extended one mile high. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board blamed the rupture on “inadequate loading of the pipe for transportation.”
* January 2003: A pipeline failure resulted in a spill of 4,500 barrels of oil at Enbridge’s oil terminal near Superior, Wis. Approximately 500 barrels flowed into the Nemadji River, a tributary of Lake Superior.
* April 2003: A gas explosion leveled an Etobicoke strip mall and killed seven people. It stands as the largest number of fatalities ever recorded in a pipeline incident in Canada.
* April/May 2004: U.S. pipeline regulators fined Enbridge for failing to properly inspect oil and gas pipelines in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
* January 2007: A pipeline break near Stanley, N.D., spilled 9,030 gallons of oil. Regulators fined Enbridge for exceeding pressure standards for the pipeline.
* February 2007: An estimated 176,000 gallons spilled in two separate incidents in Clark and Rusk County, Wisconsin. One pipeline cracked open and couldn’t be shut off until an operator in Canada shut down the line. In the second incident work crews broke the same line, filling a hole 20 feet deep with oil and contaminating local groundwater. The company was fined $100,000 for not following safety standards.
* November 2007: A 34-inch pipeline carrying bitumen to U.S. Midwest markets exploded, killing two workers near Clearbrook, Minn. The pipe had leaked two weeks prior to the explosion and was being repaired. The fireball, which leapt 100 feet into the air, temporarily jacked up the price of oil by four dollars and closed four other pipelines delivering 1.5 million barrels of crude a day.
* May 2008: Alberta’s energy regulator delivered a “high risk enforcement action” against Enbridge for using “valves, flanges and fittings” on its Midstream pipeline that were not suitable for maximum operating pressure. No fines were levied.
* January 2009: A valve blew on a pipe at the Enbridge Cheecham Terminal tank farm, spilling 4,000 barrels of oil near Anzac, Alberta. The leak wasn’t detected for three hours and Alberta regulators issued no statements, because no member of the public was affected.
* January 2010: A pipeline leaked 3,000 barrels (126,000 gallons) near Neche, N.D. The feds had warned Enbridge twice that older pipelines were susceptible to failure. The line is part of the 1,900-mile-long Lakehead System that delivers crude from western Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma and Chicago.
One of the big issues brought to light by the Kalamazoo River spill is that tar sands crude acts entirely different than regular crude when spilled in water—it sinks. It made for a tremendously difficult clean up in Michigan, at first baffling the crews. It’s a reason why the spill clean-up, after two years, still isn’t complete and parts of the river are still closed to the public.
That is one of the main arguments against the Keystone project, since its planned route goes through the major aquifer in Nebraska and a spill there would be detrimental to the water supply. And as the industry says, it’s not a matter of if.
(Feature photo: The Kalamazoo River has been closed to the public since the spill in 2010. (Terry Heatlie, NOAA)