Oil & Water: Rivers And Pipelines Make National News

Oil spill contaminates miles of the Yellowstone River, and the New York Times publishes a commentary on Wisconsin’s Line 61.

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Line 61 crossing the St. Croix River headwaters.
Line 61 crossing the St. Croix River headwaters.

Sometime this year, 1.2 million gallons of oil per day will flow beneath the St. Croix River headwaters. Enbridge, the company that owns and operates the Line 61 pipeline, promises they have made significant safety upgrades since 2010, when one of their pipelines ruptured, spilling sticky tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. 

The risk to the St. Croix, Namekagon and other rivers is being highlighted this week, as another pipeline has spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. The town of Glendive’s water supply has been contaminated, and clean-up is being complicated by ice, which is concealing the oil from sight and is too thin to safely support workers and equipment. Officials say thick ice 30 miles downriver from the spill might be the only place where they can capture the oil.

The Montana pipeline is not owned or operated by Enbridge, and was 12 inches wide, compared to the 42-inch width of Line 61. The Billings Gazette reported that two days after the pipe ruptured, crews were still trying to find the leak and figure out how much oil had made it into the river.

At the pipeline site Monday, excavation crews were digging up sections of the Bridger Pipeline on both banks of the river. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Bridger Pipeline LLC would try to recover oil believed to be still trapped in the broken pipeline.

It still wasn’t clear exactly where the leak was. The pipeline section crossing the river is roughly a mile long and bookended with safety valves located several yards away from the river’s edge.

Bridger Pipeline monitoring data suggests that at least 300 barrels of oil spilled from the breach before safety valves shut down the flow. But the milelong section of pipe also holds roughly 900 additional barrels, of which it’s uncertain how many may have leaked into the river after the shutdown.

By late Monday, officials were estimating the spill to be 1,000 barrels.

Bridger spokesman Bill Salvin said Monday that the company is confident that no more than 1,200 barrels — or 50,000 gallons — of oil spilled during the hourlong breach.

“Oil has made it into the river,” Salvin said. “We do not know how much at this point.”

An oil sheen was seen near Sidney, nearly 60 river miles downstream from Glendive, said the EPA’s Peronard.

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Today, officials announced that the cancer-causing chemical benzene, often mixed with oil in pipelines, had been detected in Glendive’s municipal water supply. It is not thought to pose a significant health threat, but residents have been warned not to drink it, and truckloads of bottled water are being hauled in.

A day before the Yellowstone River spill, Line 61 was discussed on the opinion pages of the New York Times, one of the biggest newspapers in the country. Writer Dan Kaufman said the expansion, which would push capacity past the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, deserves more attention:

While the ire of environmental activists remains fixed on the Keystone XL pipeline, a potentially greater threat looms in the proposed expansion of Line 61, a pipeline running the length of Wisconsin carrying tar sands crude. The pipeline is owned by Enbridge, a $40 billion Canadian company, which has been responsible for several hundred spills in the past decade, including one in 2010 near Marshall, Mich., reportedly the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history.

Enbridge is seeking to increase Line 61’s capacity threefold, making it a third larger than the projected Keystone XL. The last real line of defense against this expansion is an obscure zoning committee in Dane County, Wis., which is scheduled to meet on Jan. 27 to decide whether to attach conditions to Enbridge’s permit for a new pump station. Voting to do so would risk a lawsuit from Enbridge, which maintains that the county has no legal right to impose such conditions.

While the fight over Keystone XL has involved millions of dollars in advertising, the arrests of many activists outside the White House and the direct engagement of President Obama, Enbridge’s plans have received little national attention. This is a glaring example of how environmental policy with transnational impacts can be pushed at the state level without attracting great scrutiny.

Line 61, built in 2007, moves 400,000 barrels of tar sands and lighter conventional crude oil a day from Superior, Wis., in the state’s far north, to refineries in Metropolitan Chicago or, through a network of connecting pipelines, to the Gulf Coast. Enbridge wants to increase that, in stages, to 1.2 million barrels per day.

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Kaufman says Dane County, in the Madison area, is considering requiring Enbridge to purchase more insurance to cover a spill. The company has indicated it would sue if the county attempts that.

The impacts of a river oil spill were highlighted by a 2012 article in Canoe & Kayak magazine about canoeing the Yellowstone in the wake of another oil spill in that river. Writer Alan Kesselheim, who has twice paddled the whole 700 navigable miles of the Yellowstone, and hiked to the river’s headwaters in northern Wyoming, described a “bathtub ring” of oily residue on the banks, and a lack of oversight and accountability:

A morning like so many on this river. Also, a morning freighted with somber purpose. Summer warmth rises like mist. Mosquitoes linger. The canoes wait in a backwater eddy where blue heron and whitetail prints stipple the mud bank. I hurry to load the boat, eager to be back on the current. A flicker calls. A pair of mergansers wing past. The sounds of Billings blend in the distance, the hum of tires on pavement. A city going to work.

Marypat settles in the bow, her strong shoulders so familiar. Before we back out of the quiet, shady alcove, she reaches forward, puts her hand in the mud, rubs her fingers together and holds them up to the light. The tips of her fingers shine with oil. We take a picture, scoop some of the slime into a plastic bag, and label it for documentation.

The Yellowstone was in flood on July 1, 2011, when the Silvertip Pipeline burst, spewing an estimated 42,000 gallons of medium crude oil into the river near the town of Laurel, Mont., about 15 miles upstream of Billings. The pipe, which carries 1.2 million gallons of oil every day, was buried about five feet beneath the riverbed. The Silvertip is 20 years old, and in those two decades the Yellowstone has recorded three 100-year flood events: the historic deluges of 1996 and 1997, and again last year. In the face of such power, a few feet of loose sediment covering a pipe is like a stud wall against a tornado—the break was a question of when, not if.

Two weeks after the Yellowstone oil spill, Marypat and I join Gary Steele on the river to help assess the damage.

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Exxon Mobil spent $130 million employing 1,000 workers and 39 boats to clean up after the 2011 Yellowstone River incident and replace pipelines. Even so, they estimated that only one percent of the oil spilled was ever removed from the river.


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One response to “Oil & Water: Rivers And Pipelines Make National News”

  1. John Avatar
    John

    Nice reporting, Greg!

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Oil & Water: Rivers And Pipelines Make National News