Must Read: Investigation Reveals True Hazards Of Piping Tar Sands Across America

Image: Environmental Protection Agency

America has a new word to learn: Dilbit.

Dilbit, short for diluted bitumen, is a combination of tar sands crude (bitumen) and dangerous liquid chemicals like benzene (the dilutant) used to thin crude so it can be piped to refineries.

And there is a lot of it being piped into America — in some cases through the backyards of communities that don’t even know it’s there.

The U.S. imports around half a million barrels of bitumen a day from Canada’s tar sands. According to the Sierra Club, if Keystone XL backers get their way, that number may grow to 1.5 million barrels per day.

A must-read investigation released this week by Inside Climate News illustrates why that could be a potential nightmare for communities located near pipeline infrastructure.

The story follows the complicated clean-up of a tar sands oil spill that most people haven’t even heard of — a 2010 pipeline rupture in southwestern Michigan that resulted in more than one million gallons of dilbit fouling a local waterway close to the Kalamazoo River.

The three-part narrative is detailed and extremely well-researched. It features a blow-by-blow account of how the pipeline ruptured, how officials acted (or, in the case of the pipeline owner, Enbridge, how it failed to act) and why dilbit represents a double threat to the environment and public health. It also shows why having an Environmental Protection Agency is so important when crisis hits.

This investigation is a must-read for any public official or resident from a community located near the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Here’s why, nearly two years after the spill, residents are still finding tar balls in the local waterway:

Instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river’s bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use. Meanwhile, the benzene and other chemicals that had been added to liquefy the bitumen evaporated into the air.

InsideClimate News also learned that federal and local officials didn’t discover until more than a week after the spill that 6B was carrying dilbit, not conventional oil. Federal regulations do not require pipeline operators to disclose that information. And Enbridge officials did not volunteer it.

Mark Durno, an EPA deputy incident commander who is still involved in the cleanup in Marshall, is among those who were surprised by what they found.

“Submerged oil is what makes this thing more unique than even the Gulf of Mexico situation,” Durno told InsideClimate News. “Yes, that was huge—but they knew the beast they were dealing with. This experience was brand new for us. It would have been brand new for anyone in the United States.”

One of the most compelling pieces of the investigation comes when the reporters examine the safety record of America’s pipeline infrastructure. The results are shocking:

When corrosion rises above a certain threshold, PHMSA requires that it be repaired within 180 days. But the rules are flexible, and companies can easily negotiate for more time.

Records show that 6B had a history of corrosion problems.

In 2008, Enbridge identified 140 corrosion defects on 6B as serious enough to fall into the 180-day category. But the company repaired just 26 of them during that period.

In 2009, Enbridge self-reported a separate set of 250 defects to PHMSA. The company fixed only 35 of them within 180 days.

Instead of immediately addressing the 329 defects that now remained, Enbridge got a one-year extension from PHMSA by exercising its legal option to reduce pumping pressure on 6B while it decided whether to repair or replace the line.

A defect on 6B near John LaForge’s house, where the pipeline eventually ruptured, didn’t appear on any of the 180-day repair lists.

That defect, at mile marker 608, was detected at least three times before the pipeline ruptured, in 2005, 2007 and 2009, according to documents Enbridge filed with PHMSA over the years. But each time, Enbridge decided it wasn’t significant enough to require repairs within 180 days.

Ten days before 6B ruptured, Enbridge applied to PHMSA for another extension. It asked for an additional two and a half years to decide whether 6B should be repaired or replaced.

Does this sound familiar?

In January, we wrote about a pipeline inspector for the original Keystone pipeline who raised some very serious questions about the integrity of work being done for TransCanada, the company overseeing the project. After being built, the Keystone pipeline saw 12 spills in its first year in operation. The inspector, Mike Klink, warned that “people along the Keystone XL pathway have a lot more to lose if this project moves forward with the same shoddy work”:

What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.

I shared these concerns with my bosses, who communicated them to the bigwigs at TransCanada, but nothing changed. TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields.

TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year — what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?

Let’s be clear — I am an engineer; I am not telling you we shouldn’t build pipelines. We just should not build this one.

Let’s remember: The Keystone XL pipeline will be built right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive source of fresh water that provides almost one third of the water used for irrigation in the U.S.

As the debate over Keystone XL rages on, proponents of Canadian tar sands are attempting to brand the resource as a “safe” alternative that will make America more secure.

As we have detailed over and over, those security arguments don’t hold up. The Keystone XL pipeline is a way to pipe dilbit across America to service refineries that will then sell the final product into a global market.

Plus, if you care about a maintaining a liveable climate, sticking a massive straw into one of the largest pools of carbon on the planet isn’t exactly how you make the country more secure.

But more than any of that, people really care about keeping their local environment clean. And this investigative piece from Inside Climate News shows us that we’re dealing with a fundamentally different product than conventional oil — and Americans need to know more about it.

Check out the story. You can find it in multiple parts, or buy the whole thing for your e-Reader. It’s a stellar piece of journalism that everyone should read.

16 Responses to Must Read: Investigation Reveals True Hazards Of Piping Tar Sands Across America

  1. Sarah says:

    Typo 3rd paragraph: “500 million … may grow to 1.5 million”
    Should be 0.5 million.

  2. Liz Suprise says:

    So if this happens, anyone living near the big pipeline can risk having polluted well water or chances of it flowing into water bodies which then we ingest and that is obviously not something I want to see.
    Another thing about tar balls.. what do they look like. I was wondering if we have those in our very own Lake Michigan! I have been seeing a large increase in blackish sediment material shiny like a rock some not, but not heavy like a rock. Wondering what that is? Ash from the coal plant ash slide?

  3. Joan Savage says:

    While reading the book, one thing I’m going to keep in mind is that corrosion from the chemical composition of dilbit is beyond the other causes of corrosion in pipelines!

    One corrosion cause of note is flux in geomagnetic field strength. Canada has a fact sheet on geomagnetic causes of pipeline corrosion.

    In Quebec and Finland, geomagnetic pulses from the sun have been notorious for affecting pipelines (Finland) and the grid (Quebec) because the shallow soil over bedrock does not electrically ground the pulse well; corrosion is more likely in a pipeline, or a disruption in an electrical grid.
    (Formerly there was a great link to a Finnish interactive graphic about a pulse and a pipeline, but it seems to be lost.)

  4. Tim Palmer says:

    Hello, Sarah,

    It’s 4 PM and now the third paragraph says”The U.S. imports around half a million barrels of bitumen a day from Canada’s tar sands. According to the Sierra Club, if Keystone XL backers get their way, that number may grow to 1.5 million barrels per day.”

    Thank you for catching the error and thanks to Climate Progress for the quick fix!

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    And here we have a later spill…

    Alberta Oil Spill: Businesses, Residents Fear Fishery Damage From Pipeline Leak

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    And here we have Endbridge getting annoyed…

    Animation Enbridge spills it outAnimation Enbridge spills it out

  7. Lisa Boucher says:

    Here is the same story as published by the Detroit Metro Times.

    If nobody has already done so, a letter or op-ed to the Metro Times (alerting their readers to the McGowan and Song research) would be a good idea and likely published by their Editorial Department.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Stephen, ‘sticking a straw in the ground’ and sucking up the oil is the traditional description of conventional retrieval in conventional oil reserves. That is not what happens in the tar sands.

    The tar sands must be dug up and then manufactured into whatever grade of oil they are most suitable for. The people who worked at such tar sands sites in N Canada in the past used to pride themselves on the distinction and their innovations in bringing such a difficult process to success. I know because I once did some work there.

    Nobody at that time was aware of the long term implications of all this but it is still important not to confuse two entirely different operations, ME

  9. Werner Loell says:

    The fact that a corporation can make unilateral decisions regarding leaks deemed not sufficiently severe to warrant clean-up is irresponsible management and the US should not tolerate such negligence! To that you add the poor quality of material and equipment acquired from low-wage countries ensures high risk operation placing lives and property at risk inside US borders.

  10. Bayard says:

    Really? No One??? I knew the minute I learned about fracking years ago.

  11. EDpeak says:

    Bayard, though they are both forms of “extrem energy” you should not confuse the tar sands Merrelyn is mentioning, with fracking.

    That said I have to agree that for the tar sands, it should have been obvious from the start they they are going to be not only not begining but “at least as bad as regular oil” from the start..but maybe Merrelyn means that the full scale implications (corrosion? or maybe economic, or otherwise?) were not known..that’s true, they could not have known the full implications..(that’s an argument for caution not for ‘go with it’) but that the tar sands were going to be both air/water polluting in the old sense and climate-polluting, should have been clear.

    Either way, Merrelyn, welcome to to the good side (and no long the Dark Side) of the force ;-)

  12. Here’s a great article written days after the spill:

    Basically all the pieces of the InsideClimate story are there…wonder why the MSM didn’t pick up the story?

  13. Jas says:

    Having been working for maybe a year and a half on how to actually get it across to doubters and deniers (including within my own family) that Global Warming/Climate Change is real and is happening now, I’ve got some pretty good sources to use. Conservatives/Republicans/Tea Party and even Libertarians dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence as Al Gore making money, academics trying to get grant money, carbon tax money, and/or a “Liberal hoax.” They dismiss the messenger as a way to dismiss the message, and this is part of why virtually NO amount of evidence or ‘education’ is going to change minds which have already invested great personal capital on denying the reality of GW (Global Warming, not George W., lol). So let’s address the narrative from a new approach – don’t present evidence upon evidence from sources that deniers will chalk up as having some sort of Liberal bias. Use the sources they love: Private corporations and the Pentagon. Here are some great sources – Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil CEO, acknowledges man-made Global Warming, although he tries to fudge it by saying that we’re using fear tactics and that humans will be able to ‘use engineering to adapt.’ Conoco Phillips fudges a bit but also states their acceptance of the evidence. Lloyd’s of London is an insurance company that is about the same age as our country, and is enormously respected around the world. Not only do they provide insurance, but they also help lead the whole insurance industry world-wide, analyzing risk and management and making policies based on these. They also provide re-insurance, which is when insurance companies buy insurance for themselves and the risks they’ve taken on. They provide perhaps the very best descriptions of GW/CC from the private sector point of view, and the events that are happening now and will increase in the future – extreme weather events, sea level rise, etc. You can look into various issues on their website, and also look at their PDF on Climate Change. And, then there’s that other symbol of Left-wing tree-huggers, the Pentagon. They have officially put Climate Change as a national security threat – and a biggie:

  14. Re: “Let’s be clear — I am an engineer; I am not telling you we shouldn’t build pipelines. We just should not build this one.”

    Does that mean just because he’s an engineer, he can’t say no to projects that threaten the future of life on Earth?

  15. none of these comments is about banning motor vehicles, air conditioning, leafblowers, etc.

    demand will continue to create a supply until demand changes.