Oil Infrastructure Failure: Three strikes for Enbridge in six weeks

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”Oil infrastructure failure” has become a common theme this year. In the Midwest, the oil disasters have resulted in vacuum trucks cleaning off roadways in suburban Chicago and rivers in Michigan that are tributary to the Great Lakes. Crews are still cleaning up the banks of the Kalamazoo River, where EPA recently found nickel and mercury in the water and banks of the site where a million gallons of oil was spilled. The presence of heavy metals shouldn’t be a surprise since the oil dumped in July was Canadian tar sands oil, the dirtiest of the dirty, despite protestations to the contrary from the Canadian pipeline owner/operator Enbridge Energy. Eventually, Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel withdrew the objections after OnEarth and other reporters sleuthed out the truth, and demonstrated that the spill was indeed Canadian tar sands heavy crude.

The new mess on Enbridge’s hands stems from a pipeline connected to the one that spilled in Michigan that has failed in Illinois. The story is unfolding now---we don’t even know how much spilled onto roadways and a retention pond near the DuPage River in Romeoville. But we do know the pipeline contained tar sands. And that the rupture may have been connected to the Kalamazoo River spill.

Bloomberg reports that Enbridge is using its other pipelines to get the growing glut of heavy crude from Albert (code for tar sands) since the Michigan pipeline, 6B, is still shut down and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

"We have tried to redirect crude through Line 6A" and the company's Spearhead pipeline, company president Pat Daniel said in a conference call Wednesday.

You will recall Mr. Daniel as the guy who said the Michigan spill wasn’t tar sands. 6A is the line that spilled here in Chicago, suggesting that we have heavy tar sands crude from Canada gunking up suburban Chicago now.

Is it possible that Enbridge has been dangerously maxing out their pipeline capacity to make up for what they’ve lost in the other blowout? Is the chemical mix and viscosity of heavy tar sands crude consistent with the pipelines being used by Enbridge? Has appropriate care and oversight been applied to the pipelines under current conditions of use? Who knows who can find out and who can tell a public that has a right to know? Apparently not the company that owns and operates the pipelines.

Tar sands oil, or bitumen, is so thick, it requires added pressure to move it and it is not hard to imagine to corrosive goo being at the heart of an already overburdened line giving way due to extreme pressure. We don’t know exactly what was in the pipeline or whether this was the cause in Romeoville---but we know it has happened before. Paul Blackburn at Plains Justice works on a lot of pipeline issues. He tells me:

The pressure that these pipelines are under means that oil escaping from a very small leak can erode the steel at the leak, making a small leak much larger fairly quickly. A spill in a Prudhoe Bay pipeline grew from a quarter-inch hole to a dime-sized hole in about a week and leaked 212,252 gallons (equivalent to almost 24 tanker trucks of oil) during this time. Old pipelines typically develop very small leaks that are difficult to detect because the pipelines are almost always buried underground. These small leaks are too small relative to the flow of the pipeline to be detected by automatic monitoring systems, such that the only way they can be detected is through on-the-ground inspection – and that assumes that the oil saturates the soil over the pipeline. 

So, Enbridge may have been operating pipelines between Illinois and Ohio/Michigan at their maximum capacity to make up for loss of the 6B pipeline, and essentially performed a "stress test" that its system failed.

As we have seen in Michigan, near the BP Whiting refinery in Northwest Indiana (where a gasoline pipeline spill required weeks to clean and fix) and now in Romeoville, pipelines don’t take care of themselves. They carry diverse toxic material, under great pressure. They require care, close observation and proactive maintenance that sadly seems missing from the Enbridge tool kit (they were warned months before the Michigan spill that a disaster might be imminent). Paul and I agree that federal safety rules are not up to the task of anticipating the decay of older pipelines. Instead, they rely on inspections that are neither frequent enough nor sensitive enough to identify weaknesses before they happen. And now, companies like Enbridge and TransCanada want to build more and bigger pipelines, rather than go back to fix the aging relics that they have left to blight our landscapes. NWF’s recent report on oil infrastructure shows the toll this is taking nationally from 200-2009 with 2,554 incidents that all too often took lives---the report claims 161 fatalities associated with pipeline mishaps in that time period.

We must make sure that the pipeline companies get serious about safety inspections and maintenance. The best way to do that is with more aggressive regulatory tools---and real fines that impact the company’s bottom line, rather than the slaps on the wrist they currently receive.

It has been a bad couple of weeks for the tar sands industry---and this spill won’t help things for the Dirty Oil producers. They were slapped with a brutal peer-reviewed piece showing that the government has been wrong about the tar sands industry pollution in the Athabasca River published in a well-known scientific journal. Nancy Pelosi visited and expressed doubt about the fuel’s place in a clean energy economy. Another study, which supports one we put out not long ago, points out the severely underreported toll that the tar sands operations are having on North America’s birds.

But this infrastructure failure might be much worse than all of those combined. The Albertan line is that Americans should embrace their foul oil because it is so much safer than the stuff we get from other places. And as they desperately try to build pipelines that will finally allow tar sands oil to be sent to international markets beyond the United States, the folks who must approve the gargantuan pipes need to ask hard questions and require real protection of exposed communities and irreplaceable resources. These failed pipelines only increase the need for accountability, oversight and resolve.


Kalamazoo River Oil Spill image by Lucas Evans, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter Intern, via Flickr