The present controversy involving Kinder Morgan’s plans to twin their Trans Mountain oil pipeline, taking a route through Burnaby Mountain, has put pressure on the Company to reveal their procedures in event of an oil spill. So far, they has been less than transparent in responding to these concerns. They have downplayed the danger and attempted to assure interested parties that they have developed adequate procedures to implement in case of such a rare occurence. However,in 15 years of operations, Kinder Morgan has accrued a significant number of spills, largely the result of human error. This includes four along the Trans Mountain route since 2005
We need to be aware of the nature of the oil that will be piped through our Province. Kinder Morgan’s present Trans Mountain pipeline carries crude oil, semi-refined and refined products in a series in the same pipeline. This process is known within the industry as “batching.” If any of these products are released from the pipe through rupture, there are negative human and environmental effects, but procedures have been developed to deal with the resultant mess.
In July, 2007 more than 230 cubic metres of oil erupted from a Kinder Morgan pipeline in Burnaby after a line was ruptured by a construction crew working in the municipality, covering houses and seeping into nearby Burrard Inlet. This resulted in 26 outstanding lawsuits as a result of the accident, many of them from homeowners who had to be relocated for months while their homes were cleaned up. There was also a 1200 barrel spill of crude oil in November, 2009 at Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby Mountain Terminal that was confined to the Company property with minimal environmental damage. These were spills of conventional oil.
The proposed twin to the present line, however, is slated to carry dilbit. Dilbit has been described as the dirtiest and most corrosive of oil products. Dilbit, or diluted bitumen, is a product of the Alberta tar sands. Bitumen itself is a dense tarry substance having the consistency of peanut butter, obviously too dense to flow through a pipe. To make it fluid it is blended with 30% lighter hydrocarbons, typically natural gas condensates creating a less viscous material that can be more readily pipelined. Critics have denounced the transportation of dilbit by pipe because of its higher sulphur and acid content than conventional crude, which makes it more corrosive. Industry spokespersons refute these charges by stating that the anti-corrosive properties of modern pipe are superior. This is one of the controversies being debated in the United States with reference to the proposed Keystone Project, which will carry dilbit. In spite of Industry assurances, pipelines ruptures do occur, whether from human errors or natural events.
Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil is presently piped to the Company’s Westridge Marine Tanker Terminal in Burrard Inlet where it is transferred to tankers, which pass through Burrard Inlet, south along the Straits of Georgia, around the south end of Vancouver Island and through the Salish Sea on their way to markets in the Orient. It is anticipated the dilbit carried through the new line will follow the same route, a very environmentally sensitive area.
So, what does a tanker accident or a break in a pipe carrying dilbit entail. We have no experience with such an occurrence in British Columbia. To get some measure of the seriousness of the event, we have to look at some dilbit spills in the U.S.
On July 26, 2010 the first major spill of Canadian diluted bitumen occurred in an American river. The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of dilbit blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil was still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continued for more than two years. About 150 families were permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed for an extended period.
The accident was caused by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil. It is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968.
This 293 mile long pipeline was built in 1969 and had a record of numerous reported defects dating back to 2005. What the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't know at the time of the pipe rupture was that this line was carrying dilbit, the dirtiest.Instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river's bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use. Meanwhile, the benzene and other chemicals that had been added to liquefy the bitumen evaporated into the air. Federal and local officials didn't discover until more than a week after the spill that 6B was carrying dilbit, not conventional oil, and Enbridge officials did not volunteer the information. By 2014, more than a million gallons of tar sands oil have been cleaned up from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. The problem was intensified by this heavier-than-water oil sinking to the bottom of the waterway. Before it even got to the bottom, it was learned that in the first year, it stuck to surfaces of plants and debris that made a tarry mess that largely had to be manually removed. It was the removal of the submerged oil from a complex river extending over nearly 40 miles that made the cleanup last as long as it did. Enbridge estimates the total cost of cleanup from the 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River at $1.21 billion.
In July 2011, when an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured into the Yellowstone River in Montana, ExxonMobil reluctantly admitted, two weeks after the 1,500-barrel spill, that its pipeline had carried tar sands dilbit. That came as a surprise to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, who were unaware the pipe was carrying tar sands oil. According to the final report, only two days after the spill the denser bitumen had separated from the dilutants in the dilbit and sunk to the bottom of the river bed, covering about 40 kilometres. The dilutants, which contained benzene, toluene, and micro-polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) began off-gassing in the area, causing symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughing, and fatigue in 60% of the local population.
Many experts have analyzed the behavior of heavy oils in the environment and observed that if oil sinks below the surface of the water, it becomes much harder to detect and recover. Dilbit with its 30% contained diluents will float on water, making it available for recovery if the cleanup process is initiated immediately. However, on exposure to the atmosphere the lighter diluents separate and evaporate, causing the remaining heavier bitumen fraction to sink. Evaporation transports toxic components of the dilbit into the air, creating a short-term exposure hazard for spill responders and assessment scientists at the site of the spill, which was the case at the 2010 Enbridge spill. Most of the increase in density takes place in the first day or two. What this tells us is that the early hours and days of a dilbit spill are extremely important, and there is only a short window of time before the oil becomes heavier and may become harder to clean up as it sinks below the water surface.
British Columbia needs a public set of recognized procedures for cleaning up after a dilbit spill. History of spills in The U.S. suggest we cannot rely on the pipeline companies to effectively resolve the problem, or even be out-front in immediately serving notice of a spill. Ruptured pipelines carrying dilbit can have devastating effects on the environment and the human population in the area of the spill. Concern over oil tanker accidents or leaks are a special problem as confining and cleanup of the sinking bitumen at sea will involve procedures yet to be proven effective.