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Witness Says Enbridge's Wisconsin Pipeline 'Blew Like an Oil Well'

Enbridge won’t be allowed to reopen the line until it meets demands of federal regulators. Transportation secretary calls accident 'totally unacceptable.'

Aug 1, 2012
Crews replace the ruptured section of the Line 14 pipeline near Grand Marsh, Wis

When Kristin Wettstein spotted a geyser of oil spewing from the ground in a pasture across from her New Chester, Wis., house, she called 911 and described the unfolding scene.

"It just blew like an oil well," she told the dispatcher for the Adams County, Wis. Sheriff's Department on Friday afternoon.

The gushing crude oil raining down on a six-acre plot of wild grass and livestock belonged to Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company already facing a record $3.7 million fine for a 1 million gallon oil pipeline rupture that closed 36 miles of Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010. That line and the line that ruptured in Wisconsin are both part of Enbridge's 1,900-mile Lakehead System.

Before the black fountain near Wettstein's place was turned off, Enbridge estimated that 1,200 barrels of crude oil—or a little more than 50,000 gallons—had fouled the field and set in motion a scramble to clean up the mess, fix the rupture and assess the risk to drinking water wells.

The spill drew the ire of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the transportation department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's pipelines.

"Pipelines operate safely across the country every single day. That's why accidents, like the one in Wisconsin, are absolutely unacceptable," LaHood said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, PHMSA cut short Enbridge's plans to reopen the pipeline and issued a corrective action order that threatened fines and possible court action if proper inspections and repairs were not made on Pipeline 14.

"This Order finds that continued operation of the pipeline without corrective action would be hazardous to life, property, or the environment and requires Respondent (Enbridge) to take immediate corrective action to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline," according to the order signed by Jeffrey D. Wiese, PHMSA’s associate administrator for pipeline safety.

Enbridge has 10 days to appeal the order.

No cause of the rupture has been found, Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in a brief interview from the spill site.

"The damaged section of pipe has been removed and sent off site for a determination," Smith said before her cell phone cut out.

Smith did not respond to further calls, but the company's website displayed this message from Richard Adams, Enbridge vice president of U.S. operations:

"Enbridge is treating this situation as a top priority. We are bringing all necessary resources to bear. Our immediate focus is on keeping our workers and the public safe as we work to remove the oil and clean up the site."

The website said yesterday that Enbridge is preparing a restart plan to present to PHMSA. Progress toward meeting several of the requirements spelled out in the corrective action order are "well underway," the site said.

The company also pledged to fully restore the damaged field and monitor water quality.

Enbridge is headquartered in Calgary, Alberta and is Canada's largest transporter of crude oil. It boasted an operating income of more than $1 billion in 2011.

The company's cleanup of the Michigan spill, which is still continuing, has cost it more than $800 million and is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968. Enbridge also just finished cleaning up a 1,400-barrel spill at one of its pumping stations in Canada in late June.

The pipeline that ruptured in Michigan was carrying dilbit, a heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands that was especially difficult to clean up. Jane Gervais, the Adams County Emergency Management director, said Enbridge told her that the pipeline that ruptured in Wisconsin was carrying conventional oil—a light sour blend from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.

Pipeline 14 carries 317,600 barrels of oil a day and according to PHMSA was charged to almost maximum pressure when it ruptured. The oil began its 467-mile journey through the 24-inch diameter pipeline at Superior, Wis. and was destined for refineries near Chicago.

Pipeline 14 is one of four Enbridge pipelines that follow a parallel route across rivers, drinking water aquifers, interstate highways and some densely populated areas of Wisconsin and Illinois. According to PHMSA, it had suffered blowouts in the past and had a history of structural defects documented from the time of its 1998 construction.

The other three lines were temporarily shut down for inspection but have since been reopened.

It was in a pasture across from the Wettstein house, five feet underground, in a rural part of central Wisconsin known for leafy hiking trails and glistening lakes, that Pipeline 14 ruptured at about 2:41 p.m. Friday. That's when remote sensors embedded in the pipeline detected a drop in pressure and set off alarms in the Enbridge control center in Edmonton Canada, according to Smith, the Enbridge spokeswoman.

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