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[Cross posted from Green Mountain Daily]

:: Previously ::

A few years ago, while the press was providing non-stop coverage of the devastating explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a less "exciting" pipeline spill happened in Michigan, garnering almost no coverage at all. The spill occurred in a stretch of pipeline that was first installed in 1950, which had previously run incident-free:

... At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners...


The monitors detected benzene levels that ranged from below 50 parts per billion (ppb) to as high as 200 ppb. Some alarming spikes-€”6,250 ppb and even 10,000 ppb-showed up over patches of oil on the water and away from homes.

In that particular spill, Enbridge did not follow the protocols that were in place for spill response. When certain alarms sounded, they were supposed to stop the flow of oil in the line. Unfortunately, those alarms tend to sound fairly frequently, because a spill is not the only possible trigger - an air bubble in the pipe can also trigger the alarms. Since air bubbles are fairly common, the crews are accustomed to doing the exact opposite of what should be done in a spill: pump extra oil at higher pressure to try to push the bubble out of the line. You can guess what happens when you push extra oil at higher pressure into a pipe that has a 6 foot hole in it. If you're having trouble picturing it, there are 150 families in Michigan can tell you from personal experience; or perhaps this photo of the Kalamazoo river will help:

photo: (c) MIoilspill

That was in 2010, and they're still cleaning up the spill. 150 families lost their homes, animals are still being killed in certain areas by the thick "oil," and they are still trying to figure out how to remove the glop from the river bed. Unlike actual oil, the "oil" in a tar sands pipeline is actually "diluted bitumen" (more on that classification later), and diluted bitumen sinks. Oil floats. The equipment that exists for cleaning up oil spills is designed to deal with a substance that floats. It is useless against a substance that sinks.

:: Currently ::

But there are more recent examples. The past week has provided a tidy trio of oil spill news.

First, a train carrying tar sands "oil" derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 - 30,000 gallons of the stuff (reports vary).

That spill gave encouragement to pipeline promoters, who claimed no such thing could happen with a pipeline, so KXL should be built post-haste!  

Alas, a couple of days later, a stretch of Exxon's Mayflower pipeline burst under a residential neighborhood in Arkansas, dumping 10,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) into back yards, basements, storm drains, and now the local lake, once again putting the lie to the claims that long-extant pipelines are hazard-free.

In between last week's episodes of tar sands fun, Exxon Mobil was hit with a $1.7 million fine for having failed to shut down a pipeline near the Yellowstone river during a major flood event in 2011, despite government warnings that the severe flooding put the pipeline at risk of rupture. Exxon's decision resulted in 42,000 gallons of oil being dumped into the pristine (formerly, anyway) Yellowstone river when the raging flood waters caused the pipeline to break.

There are three key elements to note about pipelines and tar sands:

1) Pipelines work great until the moment they fail.

2) Tar sands spills are much more destructive and much harder to clean up than conventional oil.

3) Oil companies don't always do what they're supposed to do. Just for fun, here's another example.

This brings us to:

:: Today ::

There's nothing like ignorance when it comes to energy policy. And there's nothing like the Caledonian Record for providing examples.

In this morning's paper, the editor, Todd Smith, had these words of wisdom, regarding S.58, a bill passed by the Senate to require Act 250 review for new pipelines or changes to existing pipelines (other than repairs):

The bill targets an oil pipeline that has run quietly, since the 1940s, through a corner of the Northeast Kingdom. Theoretically it could be used to move Canadian tar sand oil but there are no plans, by anyone, to do so.
ed. note: no plans, sort of...


To be clear, the NEK pipeline has zero negative impact on Vermont and never will.

Those are Smith's actual words - "never will." He's clearly a brilliant logician, saying, essentially:

Since nothing has gone wrong yet, nothing can ever go wrong.

Wow, that's awesome! I'm wondering if he might swing by my house and apply his "never go wrong" magic to my cars. I've had terrible luck - they'll run great for years, and then, one day, things start breaking and I find myself financing a new boat for my mechanic, until I reach the point where I'm either getting a new car, or the mechanic is upgrading to a yacht.

:: More after the jump ::

Besides the obvious logical fallacy in Smith's premise, there's another reason a shift to tar sands is riskier than continuing to run processed liquid heating oil through the pipes:

Tar sands "oil" isn't oil. We use the word oil as a shortcut reference to the eventual end product. However, before it's processed, it is actually a thick tar that can't flow on its own, called "bitumen." In order to flow, it has to be thinned. What runs through the pipes is "diluted bitumen."

One of the primary thinning agents is benzene. From OSHA [emphasis mine]:

Benzene can affect your health if you inhale it, or if it comes in contact with your skin or eyes. Benzene is also harmful if you happen to swallow it.


If you are overexposed to high concentrations of benzene ... you may feel breathless, irritable, euphoric, or giddy; you may experience irritation in eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. You may develop a headache, feel dizzy, nauseated, or intoxicated. Severe exposures may lead to convulsions and loss of consciousness.


Repeated or prolonged exposure to benzene, even at relatively low concentrations, may result in various blood disorders, ranging from anemia to leukemia, an irreversible, fatal disease. Many blood disorders associated with benzene exposure may occur without symptoms.

The EPA is required to set two types of contamination levels for pollutants in water. One of those, the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) indicates the maximum amount of the contaminant that can be present in water before it affects your health.

The MCLG for Benzene:

The MCLG for benzene is zero. EPA has set this level of protection based on the best available science to prevent potential health problems.
The EPA also has an "Enforceable Regulation" level, called the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). If this much benzene is found in water, the source must be found and eliminated, and, the water cannot be used for drinking and should not be used for bathing:
0.005 mg/L or 5 parts per billion.
To give you a sense of what this means: one single drop of benzene makes 75,000 gallons of water unsafe.

Remember the benzene levels found in the air in the Michigan spill? No? They're in the first quote block at the beginning of this post - scroll on up and take a look, then come on back and think about those numbers in context.

There are some estimates on how much airborne benzene may or may not cause lasting harm to people who breathe such concentrations, but unfortunately, those estimates were of no help to the health department in Kalamazoo, because they're designed based on certain types of industrial exposures. There is no information for the exposures that occurred in Michigan, and there were no measurements taken in most homes (except a few private measurements taken by Enbridge, the results of which they refuse to release) in the area, so even if there were health estimates, no one knows what kinds of exposures were experienced for what durations by the affected families.

So, tar sands "oil" not only presents much more significant cleanup issues, it also presents health risks of unknown severity.

Good thing the pipeline "never will" pose any kind of risk!

But, wait! There's more from Mr. Smith's editorial:

At almost exactly the same time the Senate refused Act 250 environmental oversight for new industrial wind projects, as had been proposed in S.30. The bill was intended to protect our mountains and forests from the well-documented destruction done to them by industrial development.
I could link to all the stories from right here on GMD that illustrate that the "destruction" is seriously overstated and something entirely other than "well-documented" but it would take up lots of space - just use the search mechanism.

There's different point I'd like to address in the above quote:

Smith implies that wind development is harmful because it's "industrial development," which is why he opposes it. (For those in need of remedial grammar: "implies" means "to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement.")  

If Smith feels that is the case, then why did his paper glowingly name Bill Stenger the Northeast Kingdom's "man of the year," for Stenger's promised the Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative? The description of the planned development indicates massive amounts of exactly the kind of "destruction" Smith decries, and worse [emphasis mine]:

  • New ski resort hotels and facilities at both ski areas
  • A window manufacturing plant
  • Research and manufacturing plant of artificial organs and supplies
  • Clean rooms to attract hundreds of researchers and hire local technicians
  • A waterfront hotel and conference center on Lake Memphremagog
  • Expanding the Newport State Airport in Coventry
  • Warehouse space
  • A Walmart store

The story closes with:

Suddenly, the fear and the thrill is for the exciting unknown, where a Walmart store - which local leaders say will come - is just a small development compared to Stenger's projects.

For the hope and the excitement he has created, coupled with the belief that he is a man who carries through on promises, Bill Stenger has to be the 2012 man of the year for the Northeast Kingdom.

Smith ends today's editorial with this coup de grace:
Industrial wind projects rape the environment and have no impact on Vermont's carbon footprint.

Mandating environmental review for the (harmless) former but preventing it for the (destructive) latter is pure ideological hypocrisy.

There is so much in those tiny sentences. Let's start with carbon footprint:

Vermont's carbon footprint is only part of the pollution picture. What will change, immediately, is the amount of coal burned to power the ISO New England Grid, which directly impacts Vermont's air quality, in a good way.

As to hypocrisy: please see the Caledonian Record's glowing praise of Stenger's development initiative. There's definitely hypocrisy afoot, but it's not in the legislature.

As to the "(harmless) former" - well, this entire post has been about the "harmless" pipelines that have turned out to be anything but "harmless."

And lastly, I respectfully refer Mr. Smith to yesterday's Dear Joe post. Though, in case he doesn't want to actually bother clicking a link:

Putting up windmills has nothing to do with sexual assault - which is why comparing the windmills to sexual assault (aka: rape) is so offensive to those who have suffered deep and lasting trauma.
There's one more tidbit, that should be of interest to those wondering why the folks in Maine would even consider taking on the increased risk of pumping tar sands bitumen through their aging pipeline:?
A 1980 law ensures that diluted bitumen is not classified as oil, and companies transporting it in pipelines do not have to pay into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Other conventional crude producers pay 8 cents a barrel to ensure the fund has resources to help clean up some of the 54,000 barrels of pipeline oil that spilled 364 times last year.
This means that the companies who could wreck our region with their thick, heavy, carcinogenic, "black gold," do not have to clean up after themselves, should a pipeline function in a manner other than "as designed."

The taxpayers and traditional oil companies get to have all the costly "fun," while the bitumen pumpers laugh all the way to the offshore bank.  I bet our friends at the Portland Pipe Line Corporation are practically drooling at the prospect of eliminating those cleanup fund payments.

Sure, the reversal of flow and change in content is "not planned," but looking at the PPLC's statements regarding what they may want to do with the pipeline, the planning stage probably isn't far behind.

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"Green Diary Rescue" is Back!

After a hiatus of over 1 1/2 years, Meteor Blades has revived his excellent series.  As MB explained, this weekly diary is a "round-up with excerpts and links... of the hard work so many Kossacks put into bringing matters of environmental concern to the community... I'll be starting out with some commentary of my own on an issue related to the environment, a word I take in its broadest meaning."

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Originally posted to Radical Simplicity on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 02:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots and Climate Change SOS.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Sadly, I have to run out the door (3+ / 0-)

    But wanted to share some of what's going on in Vermont this week before I go.

  •  Money and Big Oil Politics (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radical simplicity, Creosote

  •  In another diary today (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radical simplicity

    analytical information was posted for the material in the Arkansas spill as 0.14 % volume basis for benzene in that tar sands synthetic crude.

    That means that statements suggesting that benzene is the primary diluent in tar sands crude are not correct.

    Also, when you make statements about either airborne concentrations or aqueous concentrations of a toxic air contaminant like benzene, the averaging time of both the measurement of physical concentrations and the resulting human exposure basis is essential for making any  health statements about the consequences of exposure.

    For example, human health morbidity and mortality endpoints and effects for benzene vary and effects like carcinogenicity cannot necessarily be attributed to benzene exposures from short term exposures as cancer risk potency factors for benzene are all determined on a long term exposure basis.

    •  Nice try (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Naptha is is the primary diluent of dilbit. Do you know what naptha is? I'll give you a hint, via the synonyms list in the EPA fact sheet on benzene:

      Synonyms: Benzol, Coal naphtha, Phene, Polystream, Pyrobenzol
      So IF this particular goo contains benzene for only 14% of the volume of 42,000 gallons, we're talking 5,880 gallons. But, if it contains 14% straight benzene, with another 16% coal derived naptha (a form of benzene), reaching the more typical 30% total diluent,  then we're talking 12,600 gallons of benzene.

      When one drop (roughly 2.5 ml) is enough to make 75,000 gallons of water unsafe for human consumption, 5,880 gallons is a big problem.  At 1514 drops per gallon, it's enough benzene to pollute 8,902,230 gallons of water. In a 30% diluent case, we're looking at enough benzene to pollute 19,076,400 gallons.

      The benzene is a bigger problem in tar sands "oil" than in conventional oil, because so much of it is bound up in the sludge, and sinks below the water's surface, only to be released later when the sludge is disturbed by water turbulence or other mechanisms. It's like an everlasting gobstopper of benzene. In a more regular spill, a larger percentage of the benzene escapes through evaporation, which, ironically, partially protects the water.

      In addition, there is a reason I said the severity of exposure in MI was unknown: because the severity is unknown.

      Since the only indoor measurements of airborne benzene in the MI spill were taken by Enbridge, and they refuse to release the results, no one knows the severity of exposure for those whose homes were filled with the evaporating benzene.  Though in one of the linked stories, the Enbridge crew emphatically told one family to get out, so for at least one family, exposure risk was probably significant.

      What we do know is that, while outdoor measurements varied wildly (as stated), all were above any safe exposure levels, and if indoor levels were anything like that, then it's a non-zero probability that some of the people in those houses - especially young children - inhaling that acrid air for 2 days before evacuation, are at risk for health effects in the future.

  •  Thank you, RS. (0+ / 0-)

    This benzene information - and your other careful backgrounding - is crucially important.

    The photo of the dilbit on the ground is terrifying. Wildlife, trees, human places, all poisoned and essentially irrecoverable.

  •  How do you clean this stuff up when it spills? (0+ / 0-)

    The tar sands oil that they want to pipe is not conventional crude.  It is diluted bitumen (asphalt).  It is diluted so that it can be moved through a pipeline with a toxic cocktail of dilutents.

    Enbridge still has not been able to do so to the EPA's satisfaction almost three years after the spill in Marshall, Michigan.

    The fact that the our leaders would even consider allowing this stuff anywhere near our nation's largest aquifer that supplies 82% of the drinking water to eight states, indicates that they don't clearly understand the risks or for some reason, don't care.

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