Whether crude oil or natural gas, once these fossil fuels are extracted from the ground, they can present flammable and toxic hazards. Safely transporting them is a major challenge. In this installment of "The Green Room," we have the second in our series on pipelines.
David Fair: This is 89-1 WEMU and welcome to “The Green Room.” I’m David Fair and we continue our series on pipelines in Michigan. All eyes have been focused on the aging Enbridge “Line 5” pipeline that travels beneath the Straits of Mackinac. But, in last month’s installment of “The Green Room,” we brought to light just how many pipelines we have right here in Washtenaw County. Old pipelines, new pipelines, and more on the way. The question being asked about “Line 5” is, if something were to go wrong, how catastrophic would it be? In this month’s edition of “The Green Room, Barbara Lucas applies the same question and concerns to the local spiderweb of pipelines.
Barbara Lucas (BL): Eight years ago, near Marshall, Michigan, a corroded pipeline burst that was carrying tar sands oil. It took 17 long hours before Enbridge employees figured out the repeated warning alarms meant a leak, and shut off the flow. By then…
WXYZ-TV Detroit/Channel 7: 877,000 gallons of oil have spilled into the creek here by the Kalamazoo river…
BL: That’s WXYZ-TV on July 27, 2010.
WXYZ-TV Detroit/Channel 7: It was a 30-inch pipe that ruptured. Obviously wildlife has been affected; birds and fish have been coated in oil… I’m told there are very toxic chemicals in this oil…
BL: Toxic benzene filled the air. Residents were evacuated, and many never went back. Enbridge bought out the worst affected riverside homes. It caused the shutdown of 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River, for years. Over a billion dollars were spent cleaning it up.
Sounds of people having fun at Argo Cascades.
BL: This is Argo Park on the Huron River in Ann Arbor. It’s packed. People come here from all over to swim, fish and paddle. Could a pipeline disaster happen somewhere in this watershed?
Evan Pratt: It's about three feet above one of our larger county drains—the Cook and Warner drain.
BL: Evan Pratt is Washtenaw County’s Water Resources Commissioner. We’re on Platt Road, where Enbridge’s Wolverine pipeline comes out of the ground and crosses a county drain. Pratt says he’s been after them about it. He’s concerned that not being buried, it could be damaged—by a falling tree, or a car—and leak into the stream below.
Pratt: It's a good thing that they've finally agreed to put additional guardrail up to make sure that nobody can run off road and bang into it.
BL: He says they refused to bury it because that would require stopping the flow of oil. Pratt has seen a downside to the urgency to get the product to market.
Pratt: …careless errors that are appeared to us to be from a contractor trying to hurry up.
BL: He says these errors have caused damage to water mains, sanitary sewer pipes, and roads.
Pratt: There are several locations where our office had to require the work to be redone.
BL: He says it’s been challenging to keep on top of things during the installation of all these pipelines.
Pratt: We have an unusual amount of pipelines in our county compared to any of our neighboring counties.
BL: He says it’s because the fossil fuel products are headed to Detroit, and Romulus, a big transfer center for the energy companies.
Pratt: So things come up from Ohio. Things come down from the Upper Peninsula and things come over from Chicago and we're kind of in sort of the middle of where all three of those places would look to take a turn, basically.
BL: And where they turn towards water is his main concern. At least a spill on land is relatively contained. But spills into water bodies travel, doing widespread damage. And it’s near water that pipeline integrity can be vulnerable.
Pratt: A lot of the weak points are going to be near drainage courses where they've had to make it so there're joints in the pipe to go underneath.
BL: He says there could be as many as 150 places in the county where pipelines cross water. Regardless of where it’s located, even a small leak can be a big concern. Like in 2015 in Linden Township.
Pratt: There was no spark or flame it was just a leak. A small hole ruptured.
BL: He says the hole in the ground caused by the escaping gas was “colossal.”
Pratt: I'd say you could probably fit ten of my cars in it quite easily.
BL: Luckily, no one was hurt. And luckily, the sound was so loud—like a jet plane—it was easy to find and diagnose. It’s the clandestine leaks that Pratt fears most.
Pratt: Oil could bubble up into the bottom of a creek. You might never see it. The pipeline we're seeing here now is like the one from Kalamazoo. It's the tar sands product.
BL: He’s concerned about…
Pratt: …having something happen and not being aware of it for hours and hours and hours, or even days on end.
BL: He’s especially worried about older pipelines.
Pratt: …that have been in for a long time that maybe weren't constructed to the same standards, and they may or may not have a good sense of where any of the weak points are in these pipes.
BL: He says when they run sensors through pipelines…
Pratt: …they do find that there are certain areas where there's, they call it, “pitting” or “pocking…”
BL: Even with all these potential problems, Pratt says transporting by rail or truck, instead, is not benign either.
Pratt: Probably fair to say especially a newer pipeline is a safer way to move hydrocarbon products, if that's what has to be done.
BL: That’s the monthly test of the county’s warning sirens. How might this Emergency Alert System help in the event of a pipeline leak?
David Halteman: We are currently covering over 80 percent of Washtenaw’s population with the sirens that you see on this map now.
BL: David Halteman, Washtenaw County’s Emergency Services Director, says the sirens mean people should go inside, and check local radio and TV for instructions. He shows me a room with a huge table and about 20 chairs. Engraved name placards at each seat read: Red Cross, Road Commission, Public Schools…
Halteman: If there is a large-scale event disaster or some other event, we would activate the Emergency Operations Center—the EOC—and representatives from the various disciplines: Fire, EMS, Public Health, they all play a role in that response. So we bring them into this room, this is where the decision-making is done.
BL: On the table is a binder chock full of procedures for pipeline issues. What if there was a break in the new Rover natural gas pipeline at Silver Lake, where a high density of people live, and a YMCA camp is located?
Halteman: On the most part, we do a shelter in place scenario where we tell people: “We don't want you to evacuate your homes, potentially moving into that gas dispersion. We want you to stay inside, close your windows. Turn off the air handling system.”
BL: Although wanting to leave the area may be a natural reaction...
Halteman: If you advise people to evacuate and they drive their car through that that mixture, they are potentially creating the ignition source themselves.
BL: He tells me about “Pipeline Awareness Training.”
Halteman: We attend that regularly every year just to keep fresh on what the current events and the current pipeline protocols are.
BL: He sees that as crucial, in light of what happened in Marshall, in 2010: Although 911 calls came in reporting a petroleum stench, local authorities couldn’t see a leak. They weren’t informed the pipeline contained tar sands oil that sinks, instead of floats. Maybe things are different now?
Halteman: We also get updated plans from them each year at that meeting.
BL: Sounds like you feel pretty confident.
Halteman: Yes. Again, I see many more other accidents along the roadways that happen much more frequently than a pipeline issue.
BL: Over two-thirds of U.S. oil, and virtually all our natural gas, is moved by pipeline.
Halteman: If you compare the volume transported with the number of incidents, the risk is very minute.
BL: For instance, the Nexus pipeline that runs through Washtenaw County is designed to deliver 1.5 billion cubic feet per day. And that’s just one of the county’s six different pipelines. Moving it all by rail instead, would require a lot more trains.
BL: And same goes for trucks.
Truck engine, horn and braking.
Halteman: It would be a constant stream of trucks, and it would be much more hazardous.
BL: Apparently, when it comes to transporting something as hazardous as oil or gas, there are no easy answers.
Fade out warning siren.
BL: In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
David Fair: Next month, we’ll hear from Enbridge and DTE Energy about the work they do to keep pipelines as safe as possible. The Green Room is heard on the last Friday of each month and you’ll find our archive of shows at wemu.org. I’m David Fair and this is 89 One WEMU FM and WEMU H-D One Ypsilanti.
“Pick Your Poison For Crude -- Pipeline, Rail, Truck Or Boat,” - James Conca, Apr 26, 2014, Forbes.