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Will Enbridge Energy's new pipeline in Michigan be safer?

A new oil pipeline is going underground in Michigan.

Enbridge Energy says this new pipeline will be bigger (36 inches vs. 30 inches) - it will pump more oil to the Marathon refinery in Detroit - and they say the pipeline will be safer. (The map in the slideshow above shows where the new line is going in.)

The new line will replace the old 6B pipeline that broke in 2010. That break led to the worst inland oil spill in North America. Three years later - thick heavy crude oil is still being scooped up off the bottom of the Kalamazoo River.

By their nature – underground pipelines go unnoticed. That is – unless they’re burying one in your backyard.

Dave Gallagher and his wife know what that’s like. Their house is south of Battle Creek and sits along the Enbridge easement.  The new pipeline Enbridge is installing will run just twelve feet from his back porch. Here’s Gallagher showing me how close:

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

That much crude oil running right next to their home worries them.

“This pipeline is going to leak somewhere,” Gallagher said. “The president and CEO of Enbridge said that all pipelines leak. There’s no guarantee he can give us, so do we even have a safety buffer zone, where if we’re home and this pipeline ruptures, are we going to be able to make it through it?”

Gallagher is right. Oil pipelines can rupture and catch fire. But experts say that’s not likely. It’s more likely for an oil pipeline to leak and cause environmental damage – like it did in Marshall.

Building the new oil pipeline

The work crews around Gallagher’s home are just setting up – putting up fences, grading the ground, scooping off and saving the top soil, and installing a wooden roadway to keep the heavy machinery from damaging his house.

The serious construction – digging and installing the pipeline – is around 40 miles northeast of his house. And they’re headed his way at clip of around a mile a day.

Tom Hodge is overseeing the installation of the new pipeline for Enbridge.

Here’s some video of the work crews lowering the welded pipeline sections into place:


Hodge says this pipeline has a number of improvements over the old pipeline.

"We're installing additional leak detection equipment on this line to enhance our ability to detect a leak."

“We’re installing additional valves with remote operation capability and pressure sensors at every one of these valves. We’re installing additional leak detection equipment on this line to enhance our ability to detect a leak.”

Hodge says the pipe is made of thicker and stronger steel too – the welds are much better – and the coating around the pipeline is superior to the coating installed in 1969.

But even with all these improvements, there’s still risk.

Back in 2010 when the pipeline broke, Enbridge workers received alarms, but they continued to pump oil. They mistook the alarms for a loss of pressure caused by something known in pipeline parlance as “column separation.” Think of air in-between the columns of water in your garden hose. The workers in Enbridge’s control center in Edmonton, Alberta cycled the pumps to try to close this separation.

You can read all about what led to the massive oil spill in this detailed NTSB report.

Carl Weimer is with the Pipeline Safety Trust. The Trust got its start after the 1999 Bellingham, Washington pipeline tragedy. Just Google “Bellingham explosion” and you’ll learn how two ten year olds playing in a river and an 18 year old fisherman were killed after a gas pipeline ruptured. Weimer and his group have been keeping an eye on pipeline safety ever since.

He says it is good Enbridge is replacing the 44-year-old pipeline in Michigan, but it doesn’t eliminate human error.

"...the best state of the art leak detection systems that companies are installing these days often still do not find these types of leaks..."

“And even the federal regulators did a study last fall that [found that] the best state of the art leak detection systems that companies are installing these days often still do not find these types of leaks or even ruptures,” said Weimer. “It’s people living next to the pipelines that find them and notify the companies.”

That’s exactly how the Marshall spill was discovered.

People complained of an odor 14 hours after the initial spill occurred. And it took Enbridge 17 hours to know they had a major problem.

An NTSB official said Enbridge employees performed like “Keystone Kops” in response to the alarms they were receiving.

The company says it has revamped its processes for the better.

And Carl Weimer says he believes Enbridge when they say they have changed things, but he says there needs to be more federal oversight of these companies.

Since Marshall, one stone left unturned

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the 2010 spill in Michigan.

“Weak” is the word they used to describe federal regulations over pipeline safety and emergency response plans.

From that report:

Contributing to the accident was the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) weak regulation for assessing and repairing crack indications, as well as PHMSA’s ineffective oversight of pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures, and public awareness.

And Weimer says that’s the one big lingering issue that has not been addressed since the spill in Marshall.

He says - to a large degree – pipeline safety and inspections are left up to the companies who run them.

“And what we found in Marshall and a whole number of other incidents in the last few years is that companies weren’t making the right decisions,” Weimer said. “So how [do] the federal and state regulators get enough information that they can know whether the companies are making the right decisions or making decisions based on the bottom line?”

Weimer and others want to know whether the government plans to do more to keep an eye on the safety of these pipelines.

Much has been made about the types of oils being transported in these pipelines.

The break in Marshall spilled around 1 million gallons of thick tar sands crude oil, according to EPA estimates.

It has proven extremely difficult to clean up – and critics contend that tar sands oil is leading to more pipeline breaks around the country. This oil is called diluted bitumen. “Diluted” because it is diluted with other liquids to get the thick oil flowing.

Congress called for a study on this very issue.

The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 called on the Secretary of Transportation to:

“complete a comprehensive review of hazardous liquid pipeline facility regulations to determine whether the regulations are sufficient to regulate pipeline facilities used for the transportation of diluted bitumen. In conducting the review, the Secretary shall conduct an analysis of whether any increase in the risk of a release exists for pipeline facilities transporting diluted bitumen.”

The National Academy of Sciences did that report, and found that transporting diluted bitumen does not increase the risk of a pipeline break.

The Pipeline Trust said that’s only half the work - that “comprehensive” means the study should have also looked at whether current regulations are sufficient to protect people and property when pipelines carrying tar sands oil break.

But it appears the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration feels the study fulfilled the obligation set forth by Congress.

In an e-mail response, a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration official didn’t say whether more regulations were coming – but said the agency is continuing to review the NAS study:

PHMSA is committed to improving pipeline safety and is continuing to review the National Academy of Sciences study analyzing the effects of diluted bitumen on crude oil transmission pipelines. The study followed the Congressional requirement, which was to “conduct an analysis of whether any increase in the risk of a release exists for pipeline facilities transporting diluted bitumen." PHMSA currently requires all hazardous liquid pipeline operators, regardless of type of product being transported, to demonstrate that their pipelines meet federal safety regulations for hazardous liquid pipelines. PHMSA will continue to look for ways to enhance the safety of the nation’s pipelines and the public’s confidence in the safe operation of these pipelines.

Carl Weimer says when it comes to inspecting the country's pipelines, PHMSA is spread thin.

"They have about 120 inspectors for all 50 states - 2.5 million miles of pipelines."

"They have about 120 inspectors for all 50 states - 2.5 million miles of pipelines," said Weimer.

In Washington, Weimer says the state decided to exercise more authority over pipelines after their tragedy in 1999.

Michigan has to follow the federal government’s lead. The state has no regulatory authority over the safety of liquid pipelines crossing the state, nor does it have authority over how emergency response plans should be developed.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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