NEW REPORT – Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks – Highlights Great Lakes Pipeline Concerns

If you thought last summer’s oil spill madness was bad, it looks like that was just the tip of the iceberg – especially here in the Great Lakes.Kalamazoo River oil spill - River Closed

According to a report that was released today by the National Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Pipeline Safety Trust and Sierra Club – our country and the Great Lakes are facing an increased risk of major tar sands pipeline leaks.

Our nation has built a thick network of pipelines to transport refined oil. Those pipelines, and the rules and regulations around them, were built specifically for conventional crude transportation. 

However, in the last decade or so, tar sands oil companies (as a cost saving measure) have started pushing raw tar sands oil or Diluted Bitumen (DilBit) through those same pipelines – including an extensive network  within the Great Lakes.

This report explains how Dilbit is acidic, corrosive, toxic, and so thick that it requires high pressure and heat to move through our pipelines:

Dilbit pipelines, which require higher operating temperatures and pressure to move the thick material through a pipe, appear to pose new and significant risks of pipeline leaks or ruptures due to corrosion, as well as problems with leak detection and safety problems from the instability of Dilbit.

The authors explain that Enbridge’s 840,000 gallon spill in Michigan was tar sands oil and the timeline of events suggest that delays in the discovery of the rupture were due to the unpredictable nature of this product.

Leaks in Dilbit pipelines are often difficult to detect…pressure changes within the pipeline can cause the natural gas liquid condensate component to move from liquid to gas phase. 

During the Kalamazoo River spill, the Enbridge pipeline gushed for more than twelve hours before the pipeline was fully shut down, and initial investigation indicates that the pipeline’s monitoring data were interpreted to indicate a column separation rather than a leak.

There are also major difficulties in cleaning up a leak, once it occurs, because components of Dilbit will sink into the water column and wetland sediments.

All of these findings echo what the agencies involved in the Kalamazoo River clean-up have disclosed as challenges they are facing.

Even scarier, the report dives into impacts to the environment and human health. 

Dilbit contains hydrogen sulfide, a gas which can cause suffocation in concentrations over 100 parts per million and is identified by producers as a potential hazard associated with a Dilbit spill. Enbridge identified hydrogen sulfide as a potential risk to its field personnel during its cleanup of the Kalamazoo River spill.

And of course, anyone following the news of the Kalamazoo River oil spill heard about the harmful impacts from being exposed to Benzene, which is known to cause cancer and is a major concern for residents living along the river.  

What was not as well known and/or disclosed is information around the heavy metals found in Dilbit. Residents had this to say about the report findings:

 “We are heartbroken to find out that the oil spilled around our home contains heavy metals like nickel and arsenic. We live near the river and know that these toxins are not going to biodegrade, but only accumulate,” said Deb Miller who lives with her husband, Ken, in Ceresco, MI.

“Enbridge and the lead agencies involved in the clean-up need to tell residents that this is what’s going to remain in our river and home, indefinitely,” explained Susan Connolly from Marshall, MI.  This disaster is going to continue impacting our communities, families, and grandchildren.  I am devastated,” she added.

So where does that leave us?

Until our regulators fully understand this product and regulate accordingly, our country needs to halt all future projects.  Because tar sands oil is already being transported throughout the Great Lakes region, we need to contact congress demanding that they strengthen standards for pipelines.

Let Congress know that we need to hold these oil companies more liable, we need to invest in our resources, and we need our pipeline regulators to always understand what’s being transported throughout our country and to consider what’s at risk when we don’t.