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Oil pipeline safety

Guest Commentary

Minnesotans: Do you know where your oil is coming from or what risk we live under (or should I say live above)?

July 25 marked the second anniversary of the Kalamazoo, Michigan pipeline spill—the largest and costliest inland oli spill in the history of the United States.

Events are being held across the country to memorialize the event urging citizens to stand up against the use and transport of dirty tar sands oil.

On July 25, 2010 the Enbridge Inc. owned pipeline dumped 1.2 million gallons of corrosive diluted tar sand bitumen into a wetland near Marshall Michigan. It overflowed the wetland and into the Kalamazoo River contaminating nearly 40 miles of total watershed area. Enbridge was fined $3.7 million for their actions.

These solidarity actions call attention to at-risk communities from the network of existing and proposed tar sands pipeline routes. Rallies and other demonstrations have and will be held to bring awareness to the dangers posed by tar sands oil and the pipelines that carry the dirty crude.

In Minnesota we had experience 11 oil pipeline leaks since 2002 according to the United States Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Keystone tar sand pipeline debate continues in Washington, DC. This controversial proposed pipeline would carry up to a million barrels of tar sand oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast each day. This 1,700 mile line would not touch Minnesota or neighboring North Dakota, but would flow through central South Dakota.

Our energy future continues to be debated but change is slow. Our dependence on coal and oil continues. Getting the coal to a utility market via train and oil to a refinery through pipelines continues to pollute our environment in many different ways.

That issue aside, we should all be concerned about pipeline safety.

On July 9, 1986 parts of Mounds View, MN were set on fire due to a gasoline pipeline explosion. The line, owned by Williams Brothers Pipe Line Company of Tulsa, exploded in the early morning and injured a number of people, destroyed property, and natural habitat as the gasoline spilled into the Rice Creek Watershed getting as far as Locke Lake in Fridley. That event led to the passage (at the time) of the strongest pipeline safety measure by the Minnesota legislature.

Enbridge Energy has recently announced plans to expand the Lakehead Pipeline system in an effort to pump even more tar sands oil through the Great Lakes. That announcement came nearly a week after the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) released a report warning that pipeline rules and regulations do not adequately protect the Great Lakes from spills.

Nearly two years later, before the investigation into the cause of that spill is complete, Enbridge has announced plans to expand the very pipeline that burst in Michigan to pump even more tar sands oil through the Great Lakes.

In order to push this product through our densely populated communities, to refineries, Enbridge plans to lease Wolverine pipelines that were built in the 1950’s and that were not constructed to deal with the extremely corrosive and abrasive nature of raw tar sands.

Not only is the risk of disastrous pipeline spills going to increase, but the pollution from refining tar sands oil is also going to impact our health and ecosystems as Enbridge transports this more corrosive and toxic oil to refineries in Toledo and Detroit.

Communities may soon be facing refineries that are requesting permits to release larger amount of pollutants, like mercury. BP Whiting, a refinery just outside of Chicago that is already refining this more toxic product, just requested permits to release mercury levels 20 times higher than what is allowed under Great Lakes water quality standards.

Once a majority of this product is refined, it will not stay in Michigan - let alone the US. These projects have been well advertised to investors as aiding to push large amounts of oil to the coasts for export.

If the Michigan Public Service Commission approves the Line 6B expansion projects the Great Lakes will be at the heart of the tar sands transportation debate- above Keystone and the Northern Gateway.

One major problem with the permitting around these expansion projects is how Elbridge’s plans have evolved in a way that would keep all decision making at state levels or within existing permits. There appears to be no federal review of the entire replacement and expansion project despite this being an international pipeline system. While federal law requires the US Department of State to approve maintenance activities at border crossings, Enbridge was apparently allowed to repair the pipeline that crosses into Canada under an existing permit.

Since that phase has been mostly completed, Enbridge has continued to put forth, piece-by-piece, projects labeled as “maintenance and rehabilitation.” These in fact replace a majority of the existing Line 6B with larger pipeline, which will eventually increase flow rates by almost double.

If Enbridge had been required by the US Department of State to put forward the entire pipeline repair project at once there would have been an environmental impact assessment and much more opportunity for public input.

The National Wildlife Federation is calling for an investigation into the entire Lakehead system expansion project, asking the Michigan Public Service Commission to suspend any pending permits on Line 6B until federal agencies review filings and determine if federal permitting should be required.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration just contracted out a study with the National Academy of Sciences to conclude whether tar sands oil is more corrosive to pipelines than conventional crude. If these Enbridge projects stay on course and are permitted in the time frame Enbridge is requesting, that study will not have been completed and important pipeline safety regulations will not be adapted to protect our communities and resources from another disastrous spill. The National Academy has begun hearings.

According to the NWF, Enbridge’s long history of pipeline spills can not be explained by mistakes of bad luck. According to a recent NWF report, Enbridge has experienced 804 spills in the last decade with a total of 6,781,950 gallons of oil spilled in the United State and Canada!

Pipelines crisscross the entire continental United States. Oil and gas pipelines are part of the infrastructure that is most times “out of site and out of mind” due to their underground location. We are sitting on potential time bombs across our country!

Citizens and their elected leaders need to be paying more and better attention to the day-to-day activates of pipelines and the companies that our running them. Or are they running us?

Gary Botzek

Executive Director

Minnesota Conservation Federation

St. Paul