Oil & Water: Pipeline To Triple Flows Under St. Croix Headwaters

Meet the biggest oil pipeline you’ve never heard of.




11 minute read

“An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”

– President Lyndon Johnson on signing the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, October 2, 1968

Line 61 crossing the St. Croix River headwaters map

The St. Croix River rises in northern Wisconsin where springs bubble up in bogs and trickle together to form the river. Just a few miles downstream, the clear waters of the Eau Claire River flow in. Another twenty miles south, the Namekagon joins the St. Croix. A short ways up the Namekagon, the Totogatic River enters it.

Under all four of those rivers, and through countless forests, fields, creeks and wetlands, a 42-inch pipeline called Line 61 carries heavy crude oil. By next year, three times as much will flow through it – supplying America with its favorite fuel, and multiplying the potential for pollution. Little has been reported previously about this expansion and its potential effects on the St. Croix headwaters.

The rivers the pipeline crosses are today stained only by the natural amber tannins of wetlands. They are home to smallmouth bass, muskie, hundred-year-old sturgeon, unique mussels and dragonflies – all of which depend on clean water to thrive. Every spring, countless birds use the rivers as highways, which offer ample food and habitat. Thousands of people fish, paddle, boat, swim, and admire the wild beauty every year.

The St. Croix (below where the pipeline crosses) and the Namekagon were among the eight inaugural Wild & Scenic Rivers when the landmark legislation was passed in 1968. That puts them in the elite .25% of all American rivers deserving the designation. They are managed today as a National Park. Meanwhile, the Totogatic is one of four state-designated Wild Rivers in Wisconsin.

“These rivers are some of the cleanest in America, and they are loved by a lot of people,” says Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association (a St. Croix 360 sponsor). “They’re home to rare wildlife, and extremely popular for recreation. An oil spill would be simply catastrophic.”

St. Croix River in Gordon, Wisconsin
St. Croix River in Gordon, Wisconsin (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The type of oil that flows through Line 61 is the same kind that spilled from a pipeline in Michigan in 2010, contaminating 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River. Both pipelines are owned by Enbridge, a Canadian company, which says it has learned its lessons after the Michigan incident – called the biggest inland oil spill in North American history.

Line 61 crosses Wisconsin at a diagonal from Superior to Illinois. Built in 2007 and 2008, it has been carrying up to 16.8 million gallons of oil each day since 2009. This year, new pumping stations were built that allow the pipeline to carry 23.5 million gallons per day. By next year, the company plans to increase the number to 50 million gallons. That is 15 million gallons per day more than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal in the western United States.

Keystone XL has been embroiled by political conflict, subject to protests and repeated delays of its approval by the Obama administration. In contrast, the expansion of Line 61 in Wisconsin is being done quietly, with almost no environmental review or opportunity for public input.

Troublesome tar sands

Just like Keystone XL, most of the oil flowing through Line 61 would be bitumen, from Canada’s tar sands. Bitumen is the heaviest crude oil in use today – the consistency of peanut butter – meaning it requires dilution with other chemicals to flow through pipelines, and it sinks in water. 

“It will float for a little bit, then the chemicals evaporate into the air, and the oil sinks,” says Elizabeth Ward, with the Wisconsin Sierra Club.

Enbridge spokesperson Becky Haase disputes that. She says when the Michigan spill happened, the river was in the midst of a major flood and the oil stuck to twigs, branches and sediment, which then sank, carrying the oil down with it.

A study paid for by the oil industry found that bitumen can float, but was criticized by scientists who reviewed its methods. In a story by InsideClimate News, geochemist Chris Reddy said, “I don’t want to discount laboratory experiments. But you have to recognize that Mother Nature is a much more complex [environment] than what is found in a laboratory.”

The results when the oil was exposed to water in the complex real world are irrefutable: bitumen that spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 sank to the bottom, making clean-up extremely difficult.

A great blue heron stained by oil in the Kalamazoo River (Michigan DEQ)
A great blue heron stained by oil in the Kalamazoo River (Michigan DEQ)

The Kalamazoo spill was the subject of a series of articles by InsideClimate News which ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of” began with a seven-month investigation and went on to examine how prepared – or unprepared – America is to increasingly import this “more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.”

The report told how officials in Michigan thought clean-up was going well at first, as they skimmed oil off the surface. But then they literally stumbled on the dirty secret: workers wading in the stream noticed they were kicking up clumps of oil.

Suddenly, the oil spill response needed to include dredging and other intense efforts to remove oil from sediments on the bottom of the river. Four years and a billion dollars later, government-ordered work to remove the last of the million gallons that dumped into the Kalamazoo continues.

“Sad to say, that experience has taught us well,” says Haase. “Based on our experience in the Kalamazoo, we are very well equipped and knowledgeable to clean up submerged oil – everything from dredging to people walking the entire river from each shore and all the way down to turn over soil to release oil so it can be cleaned up.”

Sinking oil is not the only concern with tar sands pipelines. The oil is also more corrosive than regular crude, and some of the chemicals used to dilute it are toxic.

The diluents include benzene, which can cause health problems when inhaled. In Michigan, county officials ordered the voluntary evacuation of dozens of homes when elevated benzene levels persisted for days after the Kalamazoo spill. People complained of headaches, dizziness and other unpleasant effects. Long-term exposure has been linked to anemia, cancer, and negative effects on women and fetuses.

Tar sands oil also seems to eat away at pipelines faster than regular crude. Midwest pipelines carry the bulk of tar sands oil. Those pipelines had 3.6 times as many spills as the national average between 2010 and 2012, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council. To keep the thick bitumen flowing, the pipelines operate at temperatures reaching 150 degrees, increasing the corrosive effects.

In Minnesota, a major Enbridge pipeline was just delayed for at least a year as the state wrestles with how to safeguard its famous lakes and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. In Alberta, the government recently stopped a pipeline project because Enbridge had failed to install shut-off valves at river crossings, as it had been ordered.

Contentious construction

Line 61 follows a route carrying four pipes. Three of them head southeast from Superior, and one carries diluting chemicals back north. It did not receive a rigorous review of its potential environmental impact when it was built, and was contested.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rejected calls for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a much more rigorous review than the Environmental Assessment (EA) it performed. The EA only looked at the construction itself, while an EIS would have looked at all the potential pipeline impacts, including the possibility of a spill.

The Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters was a young organization in 2006 when it was party to a lawsuit seeking to block the pipeline. In a press release at the time, the group decried the lack of strong environmental review for crossing 242 streams and digging trenches through almost 67 miles of wetlands in the state.

“It’s absurd that this project could be allowed to proceed without an analysis of how crossing the Upper St. Croix and increasing erosion from nearby land will affect fish habitat and river health,” said Scott Peterson, the group’s president.

In the EA (pdf), the regulatory agencies said if the pipeline wasn’t built in the existing corridor, it would likely be built elsewhere. That would require clearing of other forest and wetlands, and would require a longer route, affecting even more land.

The Namekagon River crossing was perhaps one of the most significant river impacts examined. The study singled out the Namekagon because of its status as a national Wild & Scenic River. The pipeline crosses it between Hayward and Trego, just downstream of Stinnett Landing. The National Park Service, which manages the river as part of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, is not allowed to permit new petroleum product right-of-ways, but the new construction took place in a right-of-way acquired before the Park Service purchased land along the Namekagon.

The Namekagon crossing also revealed contradictions between what Enbridge said and did. According to Jill Medland, acting chief of resource management for the Riverway, the company said it couldn’t use the less-invasive method of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) because there was too much rock under the river, but they reversed course when it came time to cross the river.

“They were going to cross by what they called the ‘Dam and Pump’ method, where they would have put aqua barriers in the river, pumped the area dry, diverted water around the crossing area to keep downstream flow, trenched the riverbank and river bottom, and laid the pipe,” says Medland. “Instead, when they got on site, the water was high and the contractor wanted to do HDD. So after hearing for months that HDD was not possible, it turned out that it was in fact possible, and was done.”

Looking at the site of the Namekagon River pipeline crossing.
Looking at the site of the Namekagon River pipeline crossing. (NPS photo)

Pipeline construction was plagued by problems, including illegal harm to wetlands and streambeds and failure to control erosion next to waterways. One incident resulted in a spill of more than 150,000 gallons of oil in a Rusk County farm field.

The DNR ultimately recommended charges against Enbridge for more than 100 violations of its permit across the state. The case was settled for a record $1.1 million in fines and mandated reclamation work.

Expansion under the radar

Last winter, legal notices appeared in newspapers in Spooner and Marshfield, Wisconsin announcing the plans to build new pump stations and triple the oil flowing through Line 61. Nobody really noticed. One of the permit applications received zero public comments.

Then, because the expansion doesn’t actually include building any new pipeline but only pumping stations, the DNR declared that no environmental review was necessary for the project.

“That is truly outrageous, the way this has crept up,” says the Sierra Club’s Elizabeth Ward. “A lot of us didn’t know, people who work on this constantly, didn’t realize what was happening. I think it’s politics at DNR, to be frank, is why we haven’t seen an EIS. It’s outrageous we haven’t on a project like this.”

Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker declared his support for Enbridge when he visited the company’s oil terminal in Superior last March, saying the expansion is a “tremendous opportunity” and would help provide for energy independence in North America, according to WDIO News.

Nonetheless, the Sierra Club says the scale of the project and information that has come to light since the pipeline was built demands a review of the risks.

“Back in 2006, Kalamazoo hadn’t happened yet, we had no idea how bad this could be, what happens when tar sands oil hits the water. We didn’t know the severity of the climate change impacts. I would argue that this project is different enough and we know so much more that it warrants a comprehensive EIS,” says Ward.

Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), which has closely monitored Line 61 since its construction and led the effort to hold it accountable for environmental violations during its construction, sent a letter to DNR secretary Cathy Stepp urging the agency to offer its expertise to local communities by doing a full Environmental Impact Statement.

“In a time of shrinking governmental resources, local jurisdictions rely more than ever on the Department providing sound science reviews of proposed activities with the potential to harm people, property and the environment,” MEA wrote.

The agency stuck by its decision and did not perform an environmental review of the expansion plans, aside from considering air quality impacts from new pumping stations. It justified the decision by saying no new pipeline was proposed and it had done the Environmental Assessment for construction in 2006 – despite the fact that the EA also had not looked at the potential of a spill, and had only considered flows of 16.8 million gallons per day, not the anticipated 50 million gallons that is the goal of the expansion.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

Thirty-six miles of the Kalamazoo River were closed for almost two years after the oil spill.
Thirty-six miles of the Kalamazoo River were closed for almost two years after the oil spill. (Photo by Elizabeth McGowan, InsideClimate News, used with permission)

By all indications, the pipeline expansion is going to happen. The first phase was completed this year, with one new and three upgraded pumping stations, and an increase in flows from 16.8 million gallons per day to 23 million gallons. Next year will come the full 50 million gallons per day, with several new and upgraded pump stations across the state. One will be located in the St. Croix River watershed at Minong.

That just leaves local citizens to strengthen defenses and plans for a possible spill.

“It is critical that human safety and environmental protections are adequately addressed, with thorough training for first responders. The oil and chemicals themselves could do unthinkable harm. The intense clean-up efforts would likely cause major problems, too,” says the St. Croix River Association’s Deb Ryun.

In Washburn County, where the pipeline would cross two of the four St. Croix streams, first responders just had their annual meeting and training session with Enbridge. Fire departments, paramedics, police, public works, and many others who might end up discovering or being the first on the scene of a spill were invited to attend.

The county’s emergency planner also says the pipeline company has been very proactive. “Enbridge is making a fair effort to make sure that their systems are up and running,” says Carol Buck. She said she saw how the company responded quickly and thoroughly to a false alarm,  “I’ve had one incident and they were on it for days.”

Enbridge spokesperson Haase says the trainings and regular communication with first responders are key to the company’s strategy. “The worst and last thing Enbridge wants is to have a release, and be meeting people [for the first time]. We want to say, ‘Hey Jim, this is what’s going on.’” The company has also donated money to the county and fire departments for equipment that could help in the event of a spill.

Counties are important to ensuring pipeline safety, though even elected officials are often in the dark, says the Sierra Club’s Ward. “Local elected officials feel like this has been sprung on them, nobody told them what true ramifications would be,” she says. Jefferson County, in southeast Wisconsin, has been one of the few where the issue has been actively discussed. “Some activists from Jefferson County expressed concerns to county board members and it was the first time the board members had heard of it.”

Ward says some counties have passed resolutions requesting a full EIS. She also suggests that counties bring in Enbridge and “ask questions we haven’t been getting answers to, how good are leak detection systems, how much can you guarantee we won’t get a leak.”

Public education is sorely needed, says Ward, and must include more than just first responders. There is a good chance a spill might be first reported by a paddler, angler or other river user, but most people don’t know there’s a pipeline running through the area, much less what to do if they saw a spill. Regular citizens are often the first ones to see something.

In the past decade, the general public reported 22 percent of pipeline spills, according to analysis by InsideClimate News. Pipeline workers reported 62 percent. Remote sensors, touted as a key safeguard, detected just 5 percent of spills.

This was another hard lesson from the Kalamazoo River incident in 2010, which spilled oil for 17 hours. Workers at the Edmonton, Alberta control center that monitor Enbridge’s pipelines ignored alarms through three shift changes. When the pipeline shut down automatically, they restarted it twice to push out what they thought was an air bubble in the line.

It’s been four years since Kalamazoo. Enbridge says it has implemented new technology, policies, and training to prevent it from happening again. “The safety of our system and our pipeline is our top priority,” spokesperson Haase says. “We do everything we can to keep the oil in the pipe and avoid any releases that might happen.”

By the time the St. Croix River reaches Danbury, it carries the water of the Namekagon, Totogatic, Eau Claire and several other tributaries. It is a hundred feet or so across, and the water plunges insistently toward the sea. It regularly flows at about 900 cubic feet per second – in other words, 18.5 million barrels per day, or about 15 times the flow of Line 61 next year.

As long as the oil stays in the pipeline, fish will swim, birds will nest, people will paddle, and the river will continue to run clean and clear.


St. Croix 360 offers commenting to support productive discussion. We don’t allow name-calling, personal attacks, or misinformation. This discussion may be heavily moderated and we reserve the right to block nonconstructive comments. Please: Be kind, give others the benefit of the doubt, read the article closely, check your assumptions, and stay curious. Thank you!

“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” – Bill Bullard

7 responses to “Oil & Water: Pipeline To Triple Flows Under St. Croix Headwaters”

  1. bruce noble Avatar
    bruce noble

    I’ll be riding (bicycle) pipeline 61 on Sun. Oct. 19. I could be near St. Croix Lake in the afternoon if you think it would be worthy of a photo op or interview. I’ll be there either way. I’m riding through all 16 counties under which the pipeline passes over the next year. Earlier on the 19th, 10 a.m., I’ll be at the Enbridge Tank Farm and Namadji River in Superior. Later, about noon, I’ll be riding with a group to the place where Pipeline 5 crosses Hwy. 13 and the Brule River.

    1. bruce noble Avatar
      bruce noble

      Thanks for very comprehensive article.

  2. bruce noble Avatar
    bruce noble

    Forgot to ask you to follow up by email.

  3. Bill Lawson Avatar
    Bill Lawson

    one thing that really bugs me as an engineer is they are building the pipe line with the cheapest steel and in the cheapest way possible. As a modern person in our modern society we need the energy and really should move to renewables but there are great technical problems to moving totally to renewables at this time so we are stuck using a large amount of oil, gas, etc. for the near future.

    I think we would be more successful in protecting the environment if we really pushed to do things right.. Things like adequate safety factor for the steel, using better corrosion resistant steel, double piping with holding ponds for spillage etc for river crossings are what we should be pushing for. the fact the energy will cost a little more when we do things right is an acceptable result for most people when faced with the possible consequences of a spill in the wrong place as happened in Michigan. .

    an example of this approach to preventing problems is that all underground gasoline, oil etc storage tanks are required to be double walled now to catch leaks before they pollute. This was readily accepted with some grumbling but for the most part it happened without a problem and the result is we pay a little more for our gasoline but everyone seems to be OK with that.

    lets make sure it is done right, use the best steel and plan and build to prevent a problem in an especially sensitive area if a leak does occur.

  4. Sam H. Avatar

    At what point in time does the possibility of system failure and the resulting spill become a deal-breaker that dead ends a project? A zero percent failure rate is essential and there need be no discussions of clean-up. When will the value of a timeless and irreplaceable treasure outweigh the “value” of a finite source of energy?

  5. Stephanie Daigle Avatar
    Stephanie Daigle

    I was in Gordon and the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway this morning and shot a few hundred images, I plan to make an album of the area, plus a view of where the treaty was signed.