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.'

Crews replace the ruptured section of the Line 14 pipeline near Grand Marsh, Wis
Crews replace the ruptured section of the Line 14 pipeline near Grand Marsh, Wisc. Credit: Enbridge

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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.

Working at consoles 1,450 miles away, it took Enbridge employees 14 minutes to isolate the problem and activate remotely controlled valves positioned in front of and in back of the broken section of pipe. While Wettstein was still on the telephone with the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, she described the geyser collapsing and the oil flow stopping.

By that time oil covered the pasture in a teardrop pattern spreading out from the break. Puddles of oil formed near the rupture point while dispersing and becoming tiny droplets clinging to the grass a thousand feet away, according to Ed Culhane, a public affairs officer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  

Two nearby houses, including Wettstein’s, were evacuated when dangerously high levels of benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans, were detected in the air. Wettstein, who declined to comment for this story, and her family have has been staying at a motel at Enbridge’s expense.

The geyser splattered a few cows and horses grazing in the field and contaminated two small farm ponds. The animals were examined and cleaned up by a veterinarian.

After Wettstein’s call, the Sheriff’s Department contacted the Enbridge control center and was told the company was aware of the break, according to Adams County Sheriff’s Lt. Seth Tully.

Tully said Enbridge officials declined assistance from Adams County, saying the company was sending its own people to handle the situation. Nevertheless, the department sent two deputies to assess the site, keep people away from the area and assist in evacuating the two homes.

Pipeline 14 had been inspected twice in the last five years and was due to be inspected again within a month, according to the company. Although the cause of the four-foot long rupture remains unknown, it happened along a weld on the thinnest section of pipe, which is one-third of an inch to a half-inch thick, according to the PHMSA corrective action order.

The same type of weld failure was blamed for a 2007 rupture on Pipeline 14 near Atwood, WI. that sent 1,500 barrels of oil spilling onto the landscape.

The welds have been a cause for worry by federal regulators since inspections during the 1998 construction of the pipeline revealed flawed welds along several sections of the pipeline.

The history of the pipeline and the current spill were all considered in reaching the decision to issue the corrective action order, said PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill.

“Various records related to the pipeline’s past, including inspections and past testing were taken into account,” Hill said.

Enbridge made repairs to multiple cracks in the pipeline following the 2007 spill and pronounced the pipeline safe for the next 10 years, according to the order.

But the rupture has prompted regulators to question that promise.

“The history of failures on Respondent’s (Enbridge’s) Lakehead Pipeline system, of which the affected pipeline is a part, the defects originally discovered during construction, and the 2007 failure indicate that Respondent’s integrity management program may be inadequate,” according to the order.

The pasture near Wettstein’s home looks like a construction zone now with bulldozers, dump trucks, cranes and huge back hoes, said Gervais, the Adams County Emergency Management director.

She estimates Enbridge has more than 100 people at the site working to clean up the mess.

“They are an excellent team to work with,” she said. “They are really trying to rectify the problem with safety of their employees and the public in mind.”

An estimated 12,000 tons of contaminated earth have been scooped up, tested and deemed non-hazardous, said Culhane of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It will be trucked to landfills for disposal.

Both Culhane and Gervais say the soil composition at the spill site could be a positive factor in reducing or eliminating groundwater pollution.

The top seven or so feet is sandy and sits on top of nearly impermeable clay. So the sand acted like a sponge to absorb the oil and the clay prevented it from seeping deep into the ground, Culhane said.

Nevertheless, wells are being drilled at the site and near-by to monitor the quality of groundwater. Culhane said water wells that supply drinking water to people living near the site are also being tested and will be monitored for an indefinite time.

“We don’t expect any contamination but it’s too early to say that definitively,” he said. “We need to see the results of the underground monitors to insure all the oil is removed from the site and there is no impact on ground water.”

Air quality is returning to normal around the site, Culhane said Tuesday, although workers are still wearing protective suits and using respirators.

To get oil flowing again though Pipeline 14, Enbridge will have to meet a number of stringent requirements, including testing the section of ruptured pipe for mechanical and metallurgical weakness. It also will have to re-evaluate the inspection reports done after the 2007 rupture to determine whether it missed any defects and whether the types of defects that caused the current rupture might be present in other sections of the pipeline.

Once the go-ahead is given to restart the flow of oil, PHMSA said the pipe cannot be pressurized to more than 80 percent of it rated limits and Enbridge must have personnel patrolling the pipeline.