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Tar Sands Pipelines Are Even Worse Than You Think

Given that there are plans underway to pump tar-sands oil through a Maine pipeline from Montreal to South Portland, this issue should raise alarms in the state.  The oil industry’s history of catastrophic damage is cause for much concern.

In 2010, more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River was transformed into an environmental disaster zone by a cracked tar sands pipeline and a tar sands pipeline company that neglected to turn off its pumps. Since then, a monumental $700 million cleanup effort has removed more than a million gallons of tar sands crude, along with 17 million gallons of polluted water, and 190,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris. Last week, after two years, the EPA officially reopened the affected section of the river.

Now, though, a just-released in-depth report from Inside Climate News today shows that this massive cleanup effort was in fact a debacle — a failure that reinforces the reputation of tar sands as the dirtiest oil on earth, exposes the weakness of regulatory oversight, and casts an ominous shadow across the thousands of rivers and streams that millions of Americans who live downstream of proposed tar sands pipelines depend on.

Tar sand spills prove even more toxic and difficult to clean up than typical oil spills. That’s because the heavy mixture of oil sand sinks in water, which means that tactics like skimming the surface can’t be used. Instead, remediators must try to recover the oil from the bottoms of rivers, reservoirs, or wherever it has spilled — a far more difficult task. Tar sands already contain high concentrations of heavy metals, and chemical diluents mixed in for transport are also known to be carcinogenic. EPA lab tests following a December 2011 oil leak in Colorado found concentrations of cancer-causing benzene as high as 2,000 parts per billion in the creek where the leak occurred — well above the 5 ppb national drinking water standard.

This would be bad enough if such spills were rare occurrences — but they’re not. In the past two months alone, three separate tar sands pipelines have reported spills in Canada. Enbridge Inc., whose pipe leaked into the Kalamazoo, reported a spill of 1,450 barrels of oil-sand crude in eastern Alberta just last week, while two other companies cited spills of 3,000 and 5,000 barrels respectively, the former into a reservoir used by a nearby small town.

And Canadian tar sands spills are not limited to Canada. Since May 2011, three major tar sands spills have occurred in North Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. The North Dakota spill was the twelfth from TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline during its first year of operation.

Why are tar sands pipes so accident prone? To pass through the pipelines, tar sands must be brought to extreme temperatures and pressures. Add sand and powerful chemicals to this equation, and you’ve got a formula for corroding and rupturing steel pipes, leading to breaches that spill toxic goo into aquifers and rivers.

That would be bad enough if oil companies did a good job of maintaining and monitoring these pipeline systems — but they do not. All of the most significant spills over the last two years were discovered not by the oil companies, but by ordinary citizens. The new report documents how prior to the Michigan spill, Enbridge conducted an “integrity management assessment” with an ultrasonic in-line inspection device. The disastrous spill happened anyway. The same is true of other companies whose pipelines ruptured.

Frequent tar sands spills and their devastating effects in places like Michigan make it clear that by continuing to develop tar sands we’re not taking a risk that we will poison our water and land — we’re ensuring it. And all for oil that we don’t really need.

For more information, read the rest of the Sierra Club article and related stories. Also, read Big Oil’s Big Plans for Tar Sands in New England.

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