Wisconsin faces threat of expanded tar sands pipeline

p_kalamazoo_river_oil_spill.jpgMost Wisconsinites probably don’t know that Wisconsin has a pipeline (Enbridge Line 61) that will be conveying more tar sands crude oil than was ever intended for the Keystone XL pipeline.  And chances are most people haven’t heard of Enbridge, the pipeline company, or of its Kalamazoo River disaster of 2010.  So let me fill you in.

The Kalamazoo River tar sands crude oil spill, the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, occurred in July 2010 when Enbridge pipeline 6B burst and poured over 840,000 gallons of tar-sands sludge into the Kalamazoo River, blackening over 35 miles of the waterway and causing 150 families to be permanently relocated so as to avoid the stench of the toxic fumes. [Source: McGowan, Elizabeth and Lisa Song. (June 26, 2012). “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, Part 1,” Inside Climate News. Online. http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120626/dilbit-diluted-bitumen-enbridge-kalamazoo-river-marshall-michigan-oil-spill-6b-pipeline-epa].  Three years later, reports were that the cost of the cleanup was over $1 billion and was incomplete with an estimated 181,000 gallons of tar sands still in the river [Paris, Max. (September 6, 2013). “Enbridge’s Kalamazoo cleanup dredges up three-year-old oil spill, CBC News. Online. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/enbridge-s-kalamazoo-cleanup-dredges-up-3-year-old-oil-spill-1.1327268].  Four years later, little has changed.

Tar sands crude is also known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit,” a mixture of tar sands solids or semi-solids with several hydrocarbons or natural gas liquids some of which—like benzene and hexane—are carcinogenic.  When dilbit spills into water, the lighter hydrocarbons evaporate, leaving toxic fumes in the air, and the tar sands solids sink to the bottom.  The only way to clean it up is to dredge the riverbed.  When regular sweet crude oil spills into water, the oil floats and can be vacuumed up off the top of the water.  This difference can make spills of dilbit at least ten times more expensive to clean up than spills of regular light, sweet crude [Blades, Meteor. (March 13, 2012). “Pipeline spills of tar-sands oil three times as frequent as that of crude oil, and nastier,” The Daily Kos. Online. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/03/13/1060865/-Report-Pipeline-spills-of-tar-sands-oil-three-times-as-frequent-as-that-of-crude-oil-and-nastier].

What most people do not know is that Enbridge, a Canadian company, has pipelines all over the upper Midwest, and Wisconsin has one of the major ones in Enbridge line 61.  This pipeline runs from Superior to Delavan, and it is currently carrying 400,000 barrels per day of tar sands to another Enbridge pipeline running to Illinois and from there to the Gulf of Mexico.  Fairly recently, the company has been working to “expand” these pipelines.  In the case of pipeline 61, this expansion means tripling the volume of tar sands to 1,200,000 barrels per day to be pumped through it.  To achieve this increase, Enbridge is simply installing more and higher capacity pumps along the route.

In addition, we know from a report from the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University as highlighted in the Daily Kos article cited above that tar sands oil spills are three times more frequent than spills of regular crude, and, therefore, we in the Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance believe that tripling the volume of the flow of this material would be a disaster waiting to happen.  We care about the 262 bodies of water that line 61 crosses and the nearby Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to 42 million Americans.  We don’t want to take a chance that spills of this toxic gunk would pollute these bodies of water.

In addition, we don’t need the tar sands oil because most of it will be shipped overseas for the profit of the big oil companies.  And burning gasoline derived from tar sands oil is on average 17% more carbonaceous and will exacerbate global warming. 

For all of these reasons, we are asking those who care about this issue to join us in the WISE Alliance (Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance).  For more information, or if you would like to join us, you can call Elizabeth at the Sierra Club at 608-256-0565.

Steve Spieckerman of Waukesha is a member of the WISE Alliance. 

This article was first published in the Fall 2014 issue of Green Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Green Party newsletter.

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  • commented 2015-01-25 09:25:22 -0600
    Not widely reported in US was a 50000 gallon pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River Jan 17. I learned about it from Al Jazeera. I verified it in corporate media.
  • commented 2015-01-04 14:06:04 -0600
    Do you have a map available showing the route of the Enbridge 61 pipeline? Do you have info on the likelihood of ruptures and other breakage risk if the present line is given increased pressure?