MPCA data shows many pipeline ruptures in Minnesota, Wisconsin
DULUTH -- As the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee awaits federal data on Enbridge pipeline spills, the News Tribune has obtained records from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that show dozens of oil spills in northern Minnesota over the past 30 years, dating back to when the company was Duluth-based Lakehead Pipeline.
The company, now based in Texas and a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, operates a system of pipelines that bring oil from Canada into northwestern Minnesota, then across the state along U.S. Highway 2 and into Superior, where the crude continues on to Chicago and points east, including Michigan.
The News Tribune found that over the past 30 years, nearly 1.5 million gallons of oil have spilled out of the Enbridge/Lakehead pipes in northern Minnesota -- much of it into wetlands and some of it close to the Mississippi River.
In one case, tens of thousands of spilled gallons were set on fire to avoid causing more serious environmental damage.
The MPCA data shows 145 of those spills occurred since the company became Enbridge, though only 10 were greater than 1,000 gallons.
One of the Enbridge lines has been a particular problem -- a 34-inch pipe that has been the source of most of the state's major oil spills in recent years. It's the line that exploded in 2007, killing two workers near Clearbrook, and it's the pipe that caused one of the state's largest-ever spills in 1991 near Grand Rapids.
"The record of Enbridge's (older) 34-inch line is not good; it is responsible for more than half of the oil spilled in Minnesota," said Sam Brungardt, a spokesman for the MPCA.
In a memo to the National Transportation Safety Board, the MPCA warned as early as 2003, four years before the deadly explosion, that the 34-inch line had problems when operated at full-capacity pressure. MPCA officials said many pipes apparently were damaged in transit before being laid in the 1960s, and that those "micro fractures" were still causing problems.
"The 34-inch line between North Dakota and Superior passes under or near the Mississippi River, past a number of large and very important resource lakes, through bogs and wetlands, and through or near very many other sensitive features," Steve Lee, manager of the MPCA's emergency response section, said in the memo to the NTSB. "There are frightening potential consequences of another 34-inch line failure if it occurs at or near the Mississippi River, within a tribal boundary, within a neighborhood or city, or under or near one of the major lakes."
But MPCA officials add that Enbridge has acted quickly to fix problems, including additional cleanup efforts from spills that occurred decades ago under its predecessor. And they said the company now uses high-tech pipe inspection devices to detect where problems might occur.
"When they have a problem, they respond to it quickly. And they have been very thorough in their cleanup work," Lee said. "Pipelines are still by far the safest way to transport petroleum. But when you have a problem with a pipeline, it can get very big."
Enbridge said its record is on par with any other pipeline company and that the company is committed to preventing leaks and spills.
"Enbridge has an extensive program to monitor the safety and reliability of our crude oil pipeline system," said Lorraine Grymala, an Enbridge spokeswoman. "We invested nearly $150 million last year in our integrity programs. We have a proactive preventive maintenance program, and we conduct frequent inspections of our pipelines."
Among the most serious issues along the company's pipelines:
- On Nov. 28, 2007, near Clearbrook, two Superior men died when an Enbridge pipeline exploded, spilling 15,000 gallons of crude oil as well. Enbridge was later fined $2.4 million and ordered to reduce pressure in the pipe.
- On July 4, 2002, near Cohasset and along the Mississippi River, more than 250,000 gallons of crude oil spilled out of Enbridge's pipeline.
- On March 3, 1991, as Lakehead Pipeline, 630,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from a ruptured pipe near Grand Rapids.
- On Aug. 4, 1996, 420,000 gallons of unspecified petroleum product spilled from a Lakehead pipe near Donaldson.
- On Sept. 16, 1998, 147,000 gallons of unspecified petroleum spilled from a Lakehead pipe near Plummer, forcing a temporary evacuation of the town.
- On July 22, 2000, 20,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a Lakehead pipe near Leonard.
- Enbridge spills have occurred as recently as June 9, 2009, when 5 gallons of crude spilled near Floodwood, and March 13, 2009, when 50 gallons of crude spilled near Clearbrook.
- On Jan. 4, 2009, state officials announced that Enbridge would pay $1.1 million in fines for more than 100 environmental law violations across 14 counties as the company built the 321-mile Wisconsin portion of the Alberta Clipper project from Superior to near Milwaukee in 2007 and 2008.
- On Jan. 1, 2007, 50,000 gallons of crude oil spill from an Enbridge pipeline during construction of a new pipeline in Clark County.
- On Feb. 2, 2007, 126,000 gallons of oil spill from an Enbridge pipeline ruptured by workers during construction of a new parallel pipeline in Rusk County.
- On Jan. 24, 2003, more than 100,000 gallons spilled from an Enbridge pipeline in Superior. Most was recovered on site, but some 19,000 gallons spilled onto the ice near the Nemadji River.