Mass media, politicians and environmental activists have been fixated on whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline, a delivery system intended to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Meanwhile, in Northwest Indiana, work continues on a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to the BP refinery in Whiting.
Last year, BP completed work on a major expansion to its Northwest Indiana facility for the express purpose of refining tar sands oil. The BP tar sands expansion went forward with the blessing of the Daniels administration. The already existing pipeline route, known as 6B, will carry tar sands oil through replacement pipes in close proximity to Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for over 30 million people.
Nicole Barker, executive director of environmental watchdog group Save the Dunes, received a heads-up that pipeline construction was about to cross the Indiana border from a colleague in Michigan in June of 2012.
Barker was told that Enbridge, Inc., the Canadian corporation responsible for the pipeline, had scheduled a public meeting in the town of LaPorte, Ind. Barker told her colleague, "That's where I live!"
This was the beginning of an eleventh-hour scramble by Save the Dunes, a small nonprofit, aimed at building in as many safeguards as possible into a pipeline project that, incredibly, is practically unregulated.
Enbridge's plan was to run a new, or replacement, pipeline alongside an existing 62-year-old line, Line 6B, across LaPorte and Porter counties in Northwest Indiana to Griffith, in Lake County and, from there, up to the BP refinery in Whiting. "I didn't realize how old the pipeline already in the ground was," says Barker.
"They knew, based on some integrity digs, that there were some anomalies in the integrity of the pipes that needed some repairs. In our minds, the question of did this pipeline have to be replaced was an absolute yes."
Where energy meets people
But while Enbridge calls its work on Line 6B a "replacement project," it has opted not to actually remove the older pipe. "They've never denied the fact that they could technically go back in and turn that line back on, broadening the amount of product moving through our region," says Barker. "This was the beginning of questions that we started to explore with Enbridge staff."
Founded in 1949, Enbridge, whose motto is "where energy meets people" transports over 2 million barrels of oil per day, playing, as its website says, "a critical role in developing North American energy infrastructure."
Enbridge claims to have transported nearly 12 billion gallons of crude oil over the past decade, with a safe delivery record of 99.999 percent.
Still, between 1999 and 2008, Enbridge recorded 610 spills, releasing approximately 132,000 barrels of oil into waterways and countryside. The most dramatic of these accidents took place in July 2010, when Line 6B ruptured, spilling over 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, near Marshall, Mich. It was 17 hours before anyone noticed the spill, which meant oil was able to travel downstream for 35 miles. It was the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history, but coverage of the disaster was obscured by BP's Gulf oil spill, which was also underway at that time.
- submitted photo
- Nicole Barker, executive director of environmental watchdog group Save the Dunes, a small nonprofit that has shouldered the big job of assessing Indiana's existing pipeline and new construction.
When Save the Dunes staff compared their GIS maps of Northwest Indiana with maps Enbridge was using, they found details not accounted for in Enbridge's plans. "We were trying to evaluate how many water crossings were occurring in Northwest Indiana, and how close they were to Lake Michigan," says Barker. "We knew that the spill in Marshall had moved about 40 miles downstream from the original rupture site, and when we saw that every one of our crossings, totaling about 82 of them, were within about 20 miles of Lake Michigan — that's when we realized we better dig in a little further."
The results of this digging were unsettling. According to Barker: "For hazardous liquid pipelines, there's insufficient regulations at both the state and the federal levels." When Save the Dunes contacted the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, they were told that most of the work that body does regarding these pipelines takes the form of direct notification to landowners, informing them of what to do if they see a leak.
At the federal level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conducts little, if any, oversight; and the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) relies heavily on the states to set their own safety standards. Since Indiana does not have specific regulations addressing hazardous liquid pipelines, the Hoosier state amounts to a gaping loophole when it comes to the construction of pipelines intended to carry material like tar sands oil.
"There are pipelines everywhere, criss-crossing our world," says Barker. Indeed, according to PHMSA, there are already 184,643 miles of steel pipelines carrying hazardous liquids in the United States. PHMSA figures there have been, on average, 281 "significant" incidents involving these lines per year over the past 20 years.
"In talking to the National Wildlife Federation and other coalitions around the Great Lakes, we started saying, 'Guys, this is a major issue,'" says Barker. "This is the Keystone XL of the Great Lakes and people aren't aware of it."
Save the Dunes' strategy
Indeed, while Line 6B is currently able to transport 240,000 barrels of tar sands crude per day, once the work is completed, it is expected to convey 500,000 barrels per day, with a total capacity that might reach as high as 800,000 barrels per day, a figure not that far afield from the 850,000 barrels per day projected for Keystone XL.
The pipe on Line 6B is being expanded from 30 inches to 36 inches. "Will this increase pressure on the line," asks Barker. "The federal government has come out with a report that says [tar sands oil] is not more corrosive, but what will it do in terms of pressure?"
Save the Dunes was faced with a strategic decision. With BP's refinery expansion almost complete and pipeline construction well underway — and with barely any public recognition about what was happening — the organization opted to try and build as many protections into the pipeline construction as they could.
"We felt like we missed the boat a little," says Barker. "So what could we do now? And that was to try to pressure every decisionmaker and elected official we knew about putting in the best possible product we could, starting with labor-made American steel. According to steelworkers, there have been welds and misshapen pipes coming from other countries, so we wanted solid quality control.
"We wanted more shut-off valves, especially near waterways. Originally they were going to open-cut through all the waterways and we got them to do horizontal drilling, which is much less damaging to the ecosystem, but a lot more expensive for them."
Enbridge was also persuaded to allow for independent environmental monitoring, putting inspectors on job sites every day. Michigan did not have monitors and suffered construction accidents and greater damage to natural resources along the construction route.
The monitoring seems to be working in Indiana. "They haven't found anything egregious, according to what we've been told by IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management)," says Barker. "Knowing there was someone checking every day made us feel a lot better."
This doesn't mean that the construction hasn't been tremendously disruptive to the landscape, or any less traumatic for people living close-by. Living in LaPorte County, Barker sees the work proceeding on an almost daily basis. "Homeowners adjacent couldn't believe how long it takes, couldn't believe the erosion. The one by our house is coming through moraine topography and the clear-cutting and seeing all the trees come down is very sad. The width of the swath, the equipment — it's a huge project."
Barker is a pragmatist who understands the economic momentum driving pipeline construction. "You can't pooh-pooh the jobs this has created," she says. "But I've seen a lot of license plates from other states and I just wish more local labor could have been used."
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- Pipeline construction in northern Indiana.
Now Barker wonders when Enbridge will be done and what the next steps will be for each of the affected counties. Under the circumstances, perhaps the most important thing Save the Dunes has accomplished has been to keep lines of communication open with Enbridge.
"One of the things that resonated with people was that [Enbridge] didn't have an answer for do you have site-specific plans should a spill occur in this river or in this area? Over the last year they have developed those plans. They invited us to a training where they rolled out a scenario involving Deep River [in Lake County]. I felt so much better after seeing that because that was the reassurance we wanted. If it happens here, what's the emergency response structure from a staffing perspective, time to get people to the site perspective, local hospitals, evacuations. Human health is going to be first and foremost. Then how will you deal with wildlife. They seem to have most of those questions answered. "... We've had no money to do this, it's all come out of donations. I wish we had more resources, more bodies — and I wish people would realize how our ability to make local decisions to protect ourselves may actually be necessary. Federal regulations won't always cover us."