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Commentary: Pipeline spills unlikely but possible

By Winona LaDuke


The Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline proposal is a big thing to Park Rapids and Hubbard County. Most of us think of pipelines as a way to move something from one place to another, yet, along the way a $2.5 billion pipeline brings both jobs and risks to the north country. This is the second of a set of articles on the pipeline, and what is proposed and some questions we might ask.

Presently held Enbridge lines, including Line 6, often consist of aging materials. This has concerned many regulatory officials, and may point to some larger challenges, considering the fact that pipeline companies are largely self-monitoring, and also that the only federal agency responsible for pipelines PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) has a scant 135 inspectors. Those inspectors are responsible for 2.5 million miles of pipelines to monitor, according to a recent article in Scientific American. (Those inspectors, incidentally were on federal furlough when the 865,000 gallon leak occurred in Tioga, N.D.)

Enbridge has 50,000 miles of these pipelines, including an extensive network through the Great Lakes area, home to one fifth of the worlds’ freshwater. Of particular concern to many regulatory agencies, and of interest to many skilled workers in the pipeline field are the aging Enbridge pipelines which cross the Great Lakes region- most of these pipelines are over 40 years old, and new concerns are emerging with the transportation of tar sands and other fluids through these pipelines, as these substances are more corrosive.

Of particular concern to many is the segment under the Straits of Mackinac (between Huron and Michigan), which is over 50 years old, and is no longer anchored in many places. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, these substances are 15 to 20 times more acidic than conventional oil, causing a much higher rate of corrosion. The proposed Bakken oil which the Sandpiper would carry has many unknown substances, and is also of significant concern for corrosion.

Spills unlikely but not impossible

“… Farmer Steven Jensen said the smell of sweet light crude oil wafted on his (rural Tioga) farm for four days before he discovered the leak, leading to questions about why the spill wasn’t detected sooner…” – Reuters News Service said of the 865,000 gallon spill in October of 2013.

“According to Enbridge’s company data, between 1999 and 2010, across all of the company’s operations there were 804 oil spills that released 161,475 barrels (approximately 6.8 million gallons) of hydrocarbons into the environment. This amounts to approximately half of the oil that spilled from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez after it struck a rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1988. The single largest pipeline oil spill in U.S. history was the Kalamaoo spill, which was an Enbridge line. According to testimony by Michigan lawmakers, “Federal regulators are investigating the 2010 rupture of Line 6B, part of the Enbridge-operated Lakehead pipeline system. The National Transportation Safety Board found Enbridge knew of a defect on the pipeline five years before it burst open and spilled around 20,000 barrels of oil into southern Michigan waters.”

Close to home, on July 4, 2002, a 34-inch-diameter steel pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge Pipelines (Lakehead), LLC ruptured in a marsh west of Cohasset. And the 34-inch pipeline leaked more than 252,000 gallons of crude oil into surrounding Blackwater Creek.

And, in 2010, Enbridge Energy Partners (one of several subsidiary corporations) was fined $2.4 million for a Clearbrook 2007 explosion which killed two people. Regulators, according to the Minnesota Post, found that Enbridge “… failed to safely and adequately perform maintenance and repair activities, clear the designated work area from possible source of ignition, and hire properly trained and qualified workers.”

In 2012, the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) ordered Enbridge to submit plans to improve the safety of the entire Lakeland System. Also, Canada’s National Energy Board has stated that Enbridge is not complying with safety standards at 117 of its pumping stations and is analyzing the concerns and solutions. As Greg Sheline, an engineer for Enbridge who works out of the Superior, Wisconsin office, explains “There are pump stations up and down the line of our facilities that serve both as a pump station and also as a maintenance base for technicians and pipeline maintenance repair employees.”

In an August interview, Shelen was asked “…if there’s a spill between (for instance) Park Rapids and Hubbard, it could get closed down anywhere along there, is that right?” Shelin: “It can. There are block valves placed on the mainline, as well as the pump stations that can be used to close off the flow. The block valves are positioned according to a program that takes into consideration the geography of the land, any navigable water ways, wetlands, and areas of high consequence. And that’s how the valves are positioned strategically along the line.”

The pipeline safety system itself, however is not local, “This line – the Sandpiper line – the plan is that it will be operated from the control center in Estevan, Saskatchewan … northwest of Minot, across the Canadian border,” Sheline explains. “They monitor pump stations and other technology that’s on the line. That information gets reported back to the control center, so that the operators can monitor the operation.”

Rights of ways

“The company hopes to secure 2,000 right-of-ways and easements in the next couple of years with a projected completion time of 2016. The corporation has skirted the major pipeline corridor from Bemidji to Superior through the Leech Lake Reservation. That corridor already has six pipelines in it. Apparently, the Leech Lake Tribal Council does not seem interested in a new pipeline to add to these six other pipelines across the reservation. As well, tribal right-of-ways are costly to the company and are according to sources, for twenty years as opposed to perpetual with private land owners.

Enbridge Pipelines is working in North Dakota as well as Minnesota to secure rights of ways. Many landowners are pleased with the project, while others are not. One North Dakota landowner opposed the initial survey of the land, James Botsford, and Enbridge did not seem pleased.

“What I told them is I am not going to give you permission. You are going to have to take it…” Botsford, who is an attorney and Judge for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said. The Enbridge Pipeline North Dakota Corporation filed a temporary restraining order against Botsford to gain access to his farm.

“They denied me access to and enjoyment of my land,” Botsford said. “They told me Enbridge has powers that trump mine with regard to decisions about how to use and preserve my land.”

It is not clear that the Enbridge Corporation will have the same rights in Minnesota as it does in North Dakota.

The preferred southern route is proposed to travel through Clearwater, Hubbard, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin, and Carlton counties in addition to White Earth Ojibwe Indian Reservation.

Part 3

Accidents and Liability: Who would be Liable if there is an Accident?

In general, the corporation would be liable for a pipeline failure, however, there may be some other risks, as Becky Haase, of Enbridge explained in Park Rapids this August : “All of those contribute to what the picture is for liability, exactly. Usually, the possible players in a liability scenario are the company, the contractor, a sub-contractor, an insurance company usually has an obligation to get involved. Sometimes there’s an oil liability fund that’s brought in. And so depending on the facts and the circumstances under which the incident happened and what kind of damage resulted that’s how you kind of pick out who might be pointed at for a liability and to contribute to restoration, damage control.”

What is Bakken Crude?

Now this is really the million dollar question. The Sandpiper line would carry Bakken Crude oil, from western North Dakota. One of the challenges of Bakken crude is that we don’t actually know what is in this. In short, it’s not your mother’s crude.

A 2011 study published in the Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: International Journal documented 632 chemicals used in fracking fluid, with only 353 of the chemicals reviewed in academic literature.

Of additional concern to most people living in a fracked region ,each well-pad requires 4 million gallons of water .Many wells are fracked multiple times. While natural gas , for instance is considered to be a relatively clean fossil fuel, and the carbon impact of fracked oil from Bakken may be considered less significant than that from the tar sands region, fracking is considered an extreme extraction method, with widespread environmental contamination issues. These issues may continue down the pipeline.

There is essentially a problem of contents. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing or fracking from protections under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and CIRCLA. The exemption, also known as the Halliburton Amendment, exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals involved in fracking. However, according to a 2011 Congressional report over 600 chemicals are used in this process.. Chemicals include methanol, benzene, toluene, xylene, ethyl benzene – all known carcinogens.

North Dakota Bakken Crude is unconventional oil and very volatile in nature. On July 6, 2013, a 74-car train transporting Bakken oil derailed and four cars exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 47 people were either missing or dead, actually the term used by local police authorities and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was “ vaporized” from the explosion, and about 40 buildings, half of the downtown area, were destroyed.

Stephen Goiubelt, deputy director of the Montreal environmental group Ecuaterra, commented: ‘It’s not the oil people are used to. Depending on the type of crude oil, the environmental impacts, safety issues, decontamination issues are very different because of what’s in this oil. There’s a risk of fire and explosions, but when this stuff burns it releases a lot of toxic chemicals, which have a big impact on the short term, and quite possibly on the long term, “ Goibelt explained.

The area along the proposed Sandpiper pipeline southern route from Clearbrook, Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin is mostly northwoods forest that currently has no pipelines running through it. Due to the lack of any full knowledge of the chemical composition of North Dakota fracked oil from the Bakken, little is known about what the effects a spill would have on Northern Minnesota’s environment.

Where is it Proposed?

According to Enbridge, the Sandpiper’s preferred southern route will cross into White Earth Ojibwe Indian Reservation south of Bagley and run along the eastern boundary of Upper Rice Lake, an important ricing lake for White Earth tribal members. The Sandpiper pipeline will continue south passing through a portion of the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, meanwhile passing along the eastern boundary of White Earth Reservation as it travels south along Route 71 before passing within several miles of Park Rapids, where the pipeline will turn east at Straight River township. It will also cross the Mississippi River south of Palisade before passing by the town of McGregor on its passage to Superior, Wisconsin. In total, the Sandpiper preferred southern route will travel within a five mile proximity of at least 10 state forests, parks, and wildlife management areas, including Itasca State Park, White Earth State Forest, Two Inlets State Forest, and the Fond du Lac State Forest.

In 2011 the counties along the preferred southern route for the Sandpiper earned approximately 400 million dollars that year for Leisure & Hospitality, popularly known as the tourism industry. Hubbard County alone earned 29 million dollars and employed 700 people in Leisure & Hospitality during 2011. The Great Lakes region has over 49,000 jobs in fishing, and a $ 7 billion fishing industry. This economy is also a consideration in the debate on pipelines and the future.

A spill could have a potentially major, detrimental impact on the economies of Aitkin, Carlton, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, and Hubbard counties, not to mention sending this oil into a pipeline system, which both the US and Canadian governments are concerned about, as far as the present maintenance and safety records. There are many unanswered questions. One thing is for sure, proponents and opponents will continue this discussion over the upcoming months.

What is certain, is that some important decisions need to be made, hopefully with good information, and the Enbridge Sandpiper proposal has a very long way to go down what may be a bumpy road. There are no guarnatees for the corporation, as the British Columbian government has told them.

For our region, more Bakken oil is moving by rail than ever- an estimated 380,000 cars per year will come out of North Dakota in 2013, according to a Star Tribune article, up from 9500 cars in 2008, and there a numerous concerns about the safety and rate of extraction, transport and rail lines. Difficult questions need to be asked , answered, and policies, and infrastructure put in place, by thoughtful people. While the Enbridge North Dakota pipeline company which proposes this line, has been in existence for less than a decade, and its parent corporation has been around a scant 60 years, many northern Minnesotan’s have longer residence on the lad. Aside from that, the$2.5 billion of the pipeline, not to mention the additional expansions, constitute a huge investment. This is a lot of money which could go to different choices, from infrastructure repair, to environmental protection, and efficiency. One question which hasn’t been asked at all, is how much is enough from western North Dakota, and by when…., if we don’t tackle that question , sixty years from now, our grandchildren will

be facing even more difficult questions and, perhaps consequences.

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