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U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

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Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

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A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

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A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

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Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

By Lee Bergquist, Sept. 13, 2015
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place.
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place. | Michael Sears

Despite urging from a federal agency that railroads hand over more information on safety conditions of bridges, a carrier moving Bakken crude oil through Milwaukee says it doesn’t plan to provide such details.

Trains carrying Bakken crude go through downtown Milwaukee, leaving some residents afraid of what will happen if there is a spill. This train passes by the apartment of Brian Chiu on W. Oregon St. | Brian Chiu

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) distributed a letter from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in which the regulator urged railroad carriers to provide more information to municipalities on the safety status of bridges. Milwaukee officials have complained about the lack of information on the structural integrity of railroad bridges used by Canadian Pacific in the city.

“When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response,” Feinberg wrote.

“I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide more timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.”

“CP’s position has not changed,” said Andy Cummings, a manager of media relations for the company.

“It is our policy to work directly with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is our regulator, on any concerns they have with our infrastructure.”

The exchange comes in the wake of growing concerns from communities along rail corridors used by railroads shipping a growing tide of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

Those worries have been exacerbated by tanker accidents. The most notable is the July 2013 derailment of tankers that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The tankers had been routed through Milwaukee before the accident.

There have been no accidents involving crude in Wisconsin, but on March 5 a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., after leaving Wisconsin. Twenty-one tankers derailed. Galena is about 10 miles south of the border.

In Milwaukee, one bridge in question is a 300-foot-long structure, known as a steel stringer bridge, at W. Oregon St. and S. 1st St. The bridge was constructed in 1919, according to Bridgehunter.com, which keeps a database of historic bridges.

Canadian Pacific said on Sept. 1 that it would encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns with concrete to prevent further corrosion and to extend the life of the columns. The carrier said last week that a protective layer of concrete will be applied late this month.

Since last spring, neighbors have expressed worries about the integrity of the bridge, and since July city officials have sought details on the condition of the bridge.

In addition to the threat to human safety, environmental groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper say about three dozen bridges cross rivers and streams in the Milwaukee River basin.

On Sunday, a flotilla of kayaks and canoes paddled at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers to underscore the connection between trains and the city’s waterways.

Bridges must be inspected annually by railroads. But railroads are not required to submit the information to the federal agency. Railroads also are not required to make the information available to the public.

Cummings said the bridge on S. 1st St. has been inspected by a railroad bridge inspector. “We are confident in its ability to safely handle freight and passenger train traffic,” Cummings said.

In her letter, Feinberg said the agency is “re-evaluating” its programs to determine whether it needs to take additional steps.

Common Council President Michael Murphy said he isn’t satisfied by Feinberg’s comments.

“I would liked to have seen a little more teeth in it,” he said.

Murphy said Canadian Pacific should be more transparent, adding that he expects the company to brief the council’s public safety panel soon on the bridge’s condition.

Baldwin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune last week that oil trains have put “hundreds of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin at risk for the explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.”

Nationally, trains carrying crude oil in the United States have jumped from 10,840 carloads in 2009 to 233,698 in 2012 to 493,127 in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Canadian Pacific is shipping seven to 11 Bakken crude trains a week through Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, according to the latest data sent to the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. BNSF is shipping 20 to 30 trainloads along the Mississippi River.

In a federal transportation bill that has passed the Senate but not yet the House, Baldwin and Franken said they added language that would make oil train information available for first responders. It would also give state and local officials access to inspection records of bridges.

Sunday’s paddle protest in Milwaukee was meant to highlight concerns by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety that the area’s aging bridges were not built to accommodate so much oil.

Cheryl Nenn of Riverkeeper said a rail accident that spilled crude could have long-lasting effects on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, and Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.

Complicating a potential oil spill in downtown Milwaukee is wave action from Lake Michigan, known as a seiche effect, where surging water from the lake can push water upstream, she said.

“The Milwaukee River is cleaner today than it has been in decades, and now we face a threat from crude oil,” Nenn said.

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Kayaktivists: Crude oil pipeline on rails threatens our waterways

Repost from the Wisconsin Gazette

Calling all kayaktivists and more: Crude oil pipeline on rails threatens our waterways

By Citizens Acting for Rail Safety and Milwaukee Riverkeeper,  September 12, 2015 07:35

rail-163472_copyThe dangers of shipping crude oil over and along our waterways will be highlighted by clean water advocates gathering at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers, near the railroad swing bridge.

This bridge is one of many in the metro area where trains carrying volatile crude oil cross or travel near local rivers. The railroad system was not laid out with this kind of cargo in mind. Nationally, oil train traffic has increased more than 4,000 percent in the past five years, and oil trains are also much longer, which concentrates the risk of an accident, especially in urban areas.

Crude oil trains threaten the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinic Rivers and Lake Michigan.

After decades of clean water work, we are alarmed to see an oil pipeline on rails emerge in our metro area. Work to improve water quality and wildlife habitat has also been an essential part of the revitalization of many parts of Milwaukee including the Third Ward, Menomonee Valley, and the Milwaukee River Greenway, and is critical to success of new efforts to develop the Inner Harbor..

An oil spill would have serious environmental and economic consequences.

Citizens have many questions about emergency response plans if a crude oil train were to derail and oil spill into waterways. Many oil trains — some with 100 cars of more — contain the same quantity of oil as an oil tanker, but are not required to have the same level of spill response plans or safety precautions.

  • Who would respond?
  • How would this oil be contained and cleaned up?
  • What would happen in winter when there is ice cover and oil spill recovery becomes nearly impossible?
  • How would seiche currents impact clean up efforts?
  • What are the implications for our drinking water and quality of life?

Please join clean water advocates for a visibility event highlighting the danger oil trains pose to our waterways.

    • When: Sunday, September 13, 3 p.m.
    • What: A gathering of kayaks, canoes and banners. Paddlers and other clean water supporters will join in singing and drumming with the One Drop ensemble of Jahmes Finlayson and Dena Aronson. Dona Yahola will begin the event with an Ojibwe water prayer and song.
    • Where: Participants will be near the Railroad Swing Bridge at the Confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers. Convergence at the Confluence. Third Ward Riverwalk.

 

 

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