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Enbridge's ruptured pipeline near the River Kalamazoo, Michigan, July 2010. Photo: NRDC.
Enbridge's ruptured pipeline near the River Kalamazoo, Michigan, July 2010. Photo: NRDC.
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Vermont stands against the tar sands pipeline

Meg Berlin

31st March 2014

A 62-year old pipeline across New England could be used to carry hazardous tar sand crude oil from Canada to the Atlantic, writes Meg Berlin. But communities across Vermont are campaigning to block the project that imperils waters, people and wildlife ...

In Vermont alone it would cross 15 bodies of water affecting whole watersheds if a spill were to occur.

In the small New England state of Vermont political activism runs deep.

Each year at the town meeting - held in every town in the state in March - voters come together to vote on local school budgets and town planning.

But also, sometimes, they may choose to speak their minds about other matters preying on their minds; their state's environment, for example.

These last two years that concern has crystallised on a 62-year old pipeline that may be used for a controversial type of crude oil, extracted from Canada's Athabasca tar sands.

Momentum builds in town-to-town campaign

The pipeline stretches between Montreal and Portland, on Maine's Atlantic coast. To get there it crosses the 'Northeast Kingdom' of Vermont, into northern New Hampshire and eastern Maine.

In a state-wide effort that began in 2012, coordinated by Tar Sands Free Vermont, concerned Vermont citizens began what is known as a town-to-town campaign to voice their unease over the many environmental issues related to the pumping of tar sands crude.

By campaigning successfully and educating a larger audience about pipeline issues, the campaigners also alerted state legislators to the growing number of citizens who are against this severe environmental threat.

This year 13 towns voted to forbid the pipeline to carry tar sand crude from Canada across Vermont - joining the 42 towns that voted the same way in 2013.

Whole watersheds at risk

There are genuine worries that the 62-year old pipeline will rupture under the very high pumping pressures - and spill oil into the state's wetlands, rivers and streams, along with the chemicals used to help it flow smoothly.

Also at risk will be the St Lawrence river, Quebec's largest and most important waterway. As well as supplying half of Quebec's drinking water, it's home to many whales including the Blue, Minke, northern Right, Fin, Sperm.

As the pipeline travels south and east into northern New England it crosses multiple waterways, home to a great diversity of wildlife including bear, moose and eagles. In Vermont alone it would cross 15 bodies of water affecting whole watersheds if a spill were to occur.

And let's not forget what happens next. The plan is to move the crude by tanker to refineries in Texas or across the Atlantic. Maine's economically and culturally vital offshore fisheries could all to easily be destroyed by any substantial spill.

The wrong sort of oil

Originally built to carry light to medium crude sourced from overseas from Maine to Montreal, the pipeline would reverse its flow to carry the much heavier tar sands crude oil eastward from Montreal.

The tar sands crude originates far away in the oil fields of northern Alberta. At the outset of the trade in tar sands crude, the very heavy oil - actually bitumen - was 'upgraded' into a lighter synthetic oil before shipping.

But now the production of bitumen has now outpaced the capacity to upgrade it. So the answer is - pump it anyway, and hope for the best.

Pump baby, pump

But this tar sands crude really is very different to the conventional crude the pipeline was built for - for a start, it's 40-70 times more viscous. It's also high in corrosive sulphur. And it carries abrasive impurities like quartz and pyrite.

There's two main ways to get around the viscosity problem - soften it up with volatile hydrocarbons like natural gas condensate (NGC, complete with toxic benzene) to make 'diluted bitumen' or 'dilbit'; and raise the pressure.

Trouble is, the abrasive contaminants scraping away at the pipeline's inner surface, the sulfur corroding it, and the high pressure constantly searching out any weak points so the dark, deadly fluid can burst free.

The oil also gets hot due to mechanical resistance - which helps to keep it soft. Except it also increases the rate of corrosion, and in the event of a spill the heat increases the chance of catastrophic fire or explosion with the increased evaporation of the volatile NGC components.

And that's not all. Tar sands are much harder to clean up than ordinary crudes, and worry seasoned clean-up experts.

It's not like spills don't happen

Pipeline spills occur frequently enough and there are clear signs that because of the corrosive nature of the tar sands the spills will be both a more likely occurrence as well as much harder to clean up.

In July 2010 such a spill fell upon the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, providing an example of the devastation which can come from this kind of crude oil. The 840,000 gallons of oil that spurted out of a 3 meter gash in the pipeline wall into Talmadge Creek (a tributary of the Kalamazoo) made it the largest inland oil spill in US history.

It was also one of the costliest. The operator, Enbridge, had to pay out over $765 million to in cleanup expenses. The spill was caused by a flaw in the external lining that allowed external corrosion - one of 15,000 faults identified by 2005, but not acted upon.

The oil flowed for an astonishing 18 hours before the pumps were turned off - because when the alarms went off, control room operators assumed the problem was a blockage or bubble in the pipeline, and even turned up the pressure to clear it.

A deadly black slug on the riverbed

Adding to the problems, it wasn't ordinary oil - it was 'dilbit' from Canada's Athabasca oil sands, the same stuff proposed to be pumped across New England. After the spill, the volatile hydrocarbons evaporated, leaving the bitumen to sink to the bottom of the river - contaminating a 35-mile stretch.

Mark Durno, an engineer and then Deputy incident commander for the US-EPA explained the problem to Grist: "Not only was this material submerged but it was mobile and moving along the river bottom ... We had no idea sinking oil would be such a problem."

Worsening the already disastrous situation Enbridge did not offer any of the information needed to assess the damage required to implement the clean up - because pipeline operators aren't required to disclose what kind of crude they're pumping.

And the river is still not clean today with continuing efforts under EPA supervision to clear bituminous sediments from the river.

And I almost forgot to say: Enbridge owns and operates the pipeline between Montreal and Portland.

Vermont's 'advanced energy future'

Finally, the pipeline flies in the face of Vermont's concerted effort to wean off fossil fuels, rely on clean energy, and its strategy to implement as many energy saving systems available throughout the state.

Quite aside from the pollution hazard in the event of a spill, fuel derived from tar sands generates 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuel over its life cycle.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, spoke aptly on the state's intentions: "Either we have a clean advanced energy future where we transition to renewables, we really invest in conservation, we really look at demand side solutions, but also in new forms of generation that are cleaner. Or it's extreme fossil fuels. Tar Sands are emblematic of that."



Meg Berlin is an environmental activist living in Vermont.

More information: See NRDC's 2012 study Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England.

Tar Sands Free Vermont



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