Crude awakening

The Marshall spill and dangers exposed

For years, photographer John Ganis has been using his camera to record our impact on the environment.

Which is why, in 2010, he found himself traveling along the Gulf of Mexico coast, photographing the fallout from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon spill. Soon after returning to his Detroit-area home, Ganis — like the rest of us — saw news reports on July 25 of oil gushing from a ruptured pipeline near Marshall, outside of Battle Creek.

"I thought, 'Oh, my god, I have to get over there.'"

And so he did. In fact, he made three trips to the area. What he saw, he says now, was "really devastating." 

The estimated 1 million gallons of Canadian crude oil that leaked undetected from the ruptured pipe for 12 hours appeared different from the oil Ganis had seen in the Gulf of Mexico. "It was thicker, gooier, with a strong benzene smell," recalls Ganis, a professor at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

As the second anniversary of that Kalamazoo River catastrophe approaches, the cause of that massive Michigan spill remains under investigation. The uncertainty, however, hasn't stopped the pipeline's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, from aggressively pursuing expansion plans to bring even more of the controversial Canadian crude — called "tar sands" oil by critics — coursing through the Great Lakes region.

Among the destinations for that oil is the Marathon refinery in Detroit, which, in recent years, has been expanded to handle the increased flow.

The rupture occurred in a section of what is officially known as Line 6B, part of Enbridge's 60-year-old, 4,700-mile-long Lakehead system. It is, according to a recent report from the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, "one of the largest petroleum pipelines in the world."

All of this takes place in the heart of the Great Lakes basin, home to 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. Enbridge pipelines cross Great Lakes waterways in three locations, two of which are in Michigan: the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Clair River (leading to a refinery in Sarnia, Ontario). The third is at the Niagara River, upstream from Buffalo, N.Y.

"One major problem with these expansion projects is how Enbridge conveniently (for them) evolved through the permitting process," wrote Beth Wallace, a Midwest outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, in a recent blog published on the organization's website. "There appears to be no federal review of the entire replacement project despite this being an international pipeline. ... 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 U.S. 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. Instead, Enbridge has only been required to obtain approval by the Michigan Public Service Commission. This leaves major concerns and gaps in the review process, since the state of Michigan does not consider the long-term environmental impact of pipeline routes or the impact of tar sands oil on the environment."

Industry watchdogs contend that oil from Alberta tar sands poses heightened dangers — both in terms of the stress on pipelines and the damage it causes in the event of ruptures such as the one near Marshall.

In industry parlance, the tar sands crude oil is called "DilBit," short for diluted bitumen. Because it is so thick and heavy, the bitumen is diluted (with liquefied natural gas) and heated to make it sufficiently fluid to pump through pipelines.

The industry claims there is no need to worry, that the tar sands oil is fundamentally the same as other types of oil that are extracted from the earth, transported through pipelines, and processed at refineries.

Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Little, in response to e-mailed questions from Metro Times, says a "number of studies completed by regulators and experts have shown that there is no evidence that pipelines delivering crude oil for the oil sands region are more susceptible to internal corrosion than other pipelines transporting heavy oil from conventional sources." 

Little adds, "Pipeline companies simply wouldn't allow a product into their pipeline system that would harm very costly facilities, nor would refineries allow product into their system that would damage their equipment. Clearly it is in their self-interest to protect this equipment. So the reference to 'tar sands oil' just doesn't hold up to reality."

Critics say that DilBit is different in crucial ways from other forms of crude, and that concerns over pipeline integrity and spills are valid.

As to the potential damage to pipelines and the resulting increase in ruptures, last year's Natural Resources Defense Council report (produced in conjunction with the Natural Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Pipeline Safety Trust) noted:

"There are many indications that DilBit is significantly more corrosive to pipeline systems than conventional crude. Bitumen blends are more acidic, thick and sulfuric than conventional crude oil. DilBit contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes, and 5 to 10 times as much sulfur as conventional crudes. ... The additional sulfur can lead to the weakening or embrittlement of pipelines."

In addition, "Refiners have found tar sands-derived crude to contain significantly higher quantities of abrasive quartz and sand particles than conventional crude. This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration."

The relatively high heat and pressure needed to move the thick DilBit through pipelines also increases stress on the system.

What's disturbing, environmentalists say, is that the federal agency that oversees pipelines — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — "does not distinguish between conventional crude and DilBit when setting minimum standards for oil pipelines."

While the question of DilBit's effects on pipelines continues to be investigated and debated, the difficulties it poses when it leaks into waterways was seen with certainty as a result of the Marshall spill.

Although portions of the river that had been closed since the spill were reopened last week, that doesn't mean all the oil has been cleaned up. Unlike other, less dense forms of petroleum, tar sands crude oil sinks instead of floats. Consequently, it can't be cleaned up by skimming it from the top of the water, as is usually the case with oil spills. 

Instead, it must be dredged from the bottom of riverbeds, greatly disturbing the aquatic habitat, explains Stephen K. Hamilton, a professor of aquatic ecology at Michigan State University and president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

Because of the harm caused by dredging, and the difficulty involved, it was deemed "impractical to go after every last bit of submerged oil," Hamilton explains. "There's going to be some residual oil in the system. It's important to get people to accept that. The only alternative would be to practically destroy the ecosystem you are trying to save."

As for the effects of letting the oil remain, that's an unknown at this point. "We have no experience with this kind of oil in this kind of ecosystem," Hamilton says.

What hasn't happened, at least to this point, is any large-scale retooling of regulations regarding where these pipelines are placed, how they are operated, or how DilBit should be handled.

Sara Gosman, an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, authored the April report titled "After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region." The report focuses on regulations and government oversight of Enbridge and other pipeline operators. 

We asked via e-mail if there have been any regulatory changes or changes in industry practices instituted that will reduce the likelihood of similar spills occurring in the future?

"In 2012, Congress amended the federal Pipeline Safety Act to address some issues raised by the Marshall spill," she replied. "For example, PHMSA must study methods of leak detection and report to Congress. The agency must also study the risks of diluted bitumen, the heavy crude oil that spilled in Marshall. Since these are studies, it remains to be seen how PHMSA will decide to regulate."

In other words, no big changes yet. And that is disturbing.

"We conclude in our report that pipeline laws do not adequately address the risks of pipelines, particularly risks to water resources," she noted.


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