Oil Spills Hit on Land, Too: Aging Pipelines Imperil Midwest

By Guarino, Mark | The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2010 | Go to article overview

Oil Spills Hit on Land, Too: Aging Pipelines Imperil Midwest


Guarino, Mark, The Christian Science Monitor


Oil spills in recent weeks, from Canadian-owned pipelines that supply Midwest refineries, are another sign of nation's aging infrastructure. Latest spill expected to raise Midwest gas prices by 30 cents a gallon for several weeks.

Two oil spills between late July and last week in Michigan and Illinois are expected to significantly raise prices at Midwestern gas pumps even as they raise questions about the aging infrastructure of pipelines delivering oil and natural gas from Canada to Midwestern refineries.

The two broken pipelines are owned by one company: Enbridge Energy Partners of Calgary, Alberta, a firm that is poorly regarded by environmentalists for a large, and increasing, number of spills that have dumped millions of gallons of crude into the environment over the past decade.

The company is the largest from Canada to deliver oil and natural gas into the United States. The majority of its oil and gas ends up in the Midwest, at refineries located in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.

In late July, a pipeline owned by Enbridge connecting Sarnia, Ontario to Griffith, Ind. ruptured, sending over 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in southwest Michigan. Last Thursday, another Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago, releasing 256,200 gallons of oil. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the leak was stopped Monday.

The cause of the Illinois spill is not yet known, but preliminary reports regarding the earlier Michigan spill show that corrosion may have played a part in the release of oil. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency operating under the US Department of Transportation, told Enbridge in January that the pipeline did not comply with federal regulations. The pipe was manufactured in 1969 and received a dozen federal citations and warnings for safety violations since 2002.

The Midwest spills coincide with a natural gas pipeline that erupted outside San Francisco last week, killing 4 people and destroying over 30 homes. Although the National Transportation Safety Board investigation to root out a cause is ongoing, the agency reports that the pipeline, owned by PG&E Corp. of San Francisco, was built in 1956. The Enbridge pipe in Illinois started operating in 1968.

Aging national network

These incidents are drawing attention to the aging network of liquid and natural gas pipelines in the US. According to the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group in Bellingham, Wash. that promotes fuel transportation safety, the majority of both natural gas and liquid pipelines in the US were installed before 1970. The peak installment years for both kinds of pipelines were between 1950 and 1969, a time period that accounts for about 40 percent of the pipelines built between 1920 and today.

Pipelines dating back as much as 60 years are an issue "because they don't have the same kind of steel, the same kind of anti- corrosion coating that new pipelines do," says Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Mr. Weimer argues that increased federal regulation is needed to maintain and repair the aging infrastructure. Current pipeline inspections are limited to special sections located in "high consequence areas," a designation having to do with population density near the pipelines. According to Weimer, the designation only covers 44 percent of liquid pipelines and just 7 percent of natural gas pipelines of the total number that exist in the US. …

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