This whole situation bears a disturbing resemblance to the monorail episode of The Simpsons.
The after effects of Lyle Lanley’s monorail bears eerie similarities to the potential impact Line 9 could have in Canada. via the Simpsons Wiki.
In a classic episode of the Simpsons, a travelling salesman named Lyle Lanley visits a town meeting and convinces the people of Springfield to invest in a monorail—a lavish train system that the town welcomes with a song. But Marge Simpson remains skeptical, so she visits North Haverbrook where a previous Lanley monorail was built: Houses and businesses are abandoned, people are traumatized, and the remains of a derailed train hang precariously off of broken tracks in the town’s centre. A scientist clarifies, “this is all that’s left of one of the crappiest trains ever built.” But Marge is too late to warn Springfield and on the new monorail’s maiden voyage its brakes fail, nearly killing everyone on board. Meanwhile, Lyle Lanley boards a flight out of town with two giant suitcases full of money.
Enbridge’s new proposal for its 37-year-old Line 9 pipeline is a lot like the Springfield monorail. The people of Ontario and Quebec are being sold on a tar sands pipeline that has a “high risk” of rupture in its “early years” of operation. And a rupture of this pipeline, which cuts through the most densely populated part of Canada and crosses twelve major watersheds, could result in an unprecedented catastrophe. Never before has a pipeline carrying diluted tar sands bitumen (dilbit) passed through, or ruptured in, a major urban centre.
Like the desolate town Marge visits, we should pay close attention to other communities with pipelines like Line 9. In Kalamazoo, Michigan an almost identical Enbridge pipeline (Line 6B) ruptured leaking 3.3 million litres of dilbit, poisoning that community and leading to the most expensive on-land oil clean up in US history. Like the Monorail itself, where Lanley cut corners on everything, Line 9 is already in crummy shape—a report submitted to the National Energy Board by pipeline safety expert Richard Kuprewicz found that “both Line 9A and 9B segments have extensive crack threat sites . . . similar to those observed in Line 6B [of Kalamazoo] across that system.” And just as Lyle Lanley is the only financial benefactor of the monorail, Line 9 benefits oil producers from Alberta, Enbridge, and, to some extent, refineries in Quebec—while the health and safety of millions of Canadians is put at risk. Yet unlike the residents of fictional Springfield, we, the people of Ontario and Quebec, have been shut out of our own town hall.
Line 9 runs from Sarnia’s Chemical Valley to Montreal’s petrochemical complex. It passes through Toronto and Montreal, smaller communities like Mississauga, Peterborough, Hamilton, and London, and fourteen First Nations reserves. It crosses many waterways that run into Lake Ontario, including the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, and comes within five kilometres of Lake Ontario itself. It cuts beneath a number of major Canadian highways and passes near Pearson International Airport, the largest airport in all of Canada. In a cost-benefit analysis submitted to the NEB, the regulatory board has been instructed that: “No other crude oil pipeline in Canada has the same proximity to human activity, water, and economic activity.” By comparison, the report warns, the Kalamazoo spill in rural Michigan was “nowhere near the worst-case scenario for [Line 9B], which runs through densely populated urban areas and could damage and disrupt major infrastructure, and possibly cause loss of life.”
For more than three decades, Line 9 has been used to ship North African liquid crude west from Montreal to refineries in Sarnia. During this time, according to Enbridge, the line has spilled thirteen times. Given the broader context of Enbridge’s operations, these spills are no surprise. Indicated in the company’s own files, between 1999 and 2010 it oversaw “804 spills that released 161,475 barrels [or 25.67 million litres] … of hydrocarbons into the environment”—making for an average of 73 pipeline failures per year.
Enbridge has applied to the National Energy Board of Canada (NEB) to repurpose this old pipeline—they hope to reverse its direction, increase its flow, and use it to ship unconventional fuels including diluted bitumen and highly explosive Bakken. The pipeline was not designed to transport these materials, and therein lies a world of risk. If the NEB allows Enbridge to pump dilbit through Line 9, its chance of rupture will increase dramatically.
While Enbridge and the Canadian oil industry have been touting a study that has found dilbit to be as safe for pipeline transmission as other forms of heavy crude, other members of the scientific community have interpreted its results as irrelevant. Meanwhile, pipeline engineers around North America continuously produce new evidence that dilbit corrodes pipelines and increases their rate of rupture. And there are many technical reasons why: the hydrogen content of dilbit causes cracks to expand, its consistency causes pipeline pressure swings that accelerate crack growth, it is extremely acidic (up to 20 times more acidic than conventional crude), and the pipeline must operate at an extremely high pressure and temperature in order for dilbit to flow, putting the whole system under greater stress. And this tendency is already verified—a Cornell University study compared the records of US pipeline operators and found that “between 2007 and 2010, pipelines transporting tar sands oil in the northern Midwest have spilled three times more oil per mile than the U.S. national average for conventional crude.”
But what alarms me about Enbridge’s proposal to ship dilbit through Line 9 isn’t just that “there is a high risk the pipeline will rupture in the early years following the Project’s implementation,” but just how fucked we’ll all be when that rupture occurs.
Dilbit is way more toxic than conventional oil. The components of dilbit are tar sands bitumen and some sort of lighter material (diluent) used to make the mixture flow. Because recipes of diluent are kept secret by industry, we don’t know exactly what chemicals this mixture contains. Common culprits include benzene, toluene, xylene, n-hexane, natural gas, hydrogen sulphide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The Material Safety Datasheets for an Imperial Oil dilbit recipe from 2002 read like a warning label for a million cigarettes—including tidbits such as:
“Vapours or dust may be harmful or fatal . . .
High vapour concentrations are irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; may cause headaches and dizziness; may be anaesthetic and may cause other central nervous system effects, including death.
Hydrogen sulphide gas may be released. Hydrogen sulphide may cause irritation, breathing failure, coma and death, without necessarily any warning odour being sensed.
Contains benzene. Human health studies (epidemiological) indicate that prolonged and/or repeated overexposures to benzene may cause damage to the blood producing system (particularly bone marrow) and serious blood disorders including leukemia. Animal tests indicate that benzene does not cause malformations but may be toxic to the embryo / fetus. The relationship of the results to humans has not been established. Studies indicate that benzene is a known human carcinogen…”
When a dilbit spill occurs, the mixture of light diluent and heavy bitumen separates. The diluent evaporates into the air, putting those nearby at risk of toxic exposure when they breathe. This type of exposure affected residents near the Kalamazoo oil spill—the US National Transportation Safety Board noted a high rate of benzene exposure among those living near the spill while a Michigan Department of Community Health study, cited in an op-ed by Mike Schreiner, found that “of 550 people . . . 58% of those contacted suffered from adverse health effects, most commonly headaches, respiratory problems, and nausea.” Other than cancer, we can only speculate about what kind of long term health problems dilbit exposure can lead to – its exact chemical make-up is a guarded secret.
As an added bonus, diluents also increase “the risk that an oil spill will explode if it comes into contact with high heat, sparks, static electricity or lightning.” Accordingly, a Goodman Group report submitted to the NEB warns that: “A Line 9B spill and explosion in the Montreal-East petrochemical complex has the potential to create a major explosion, by setting off a domino effect in an area with highly explosive facilities.”
But long after the airborne toxins released by a pipeline rupture have dispersed, bitumen remains on the ground. And if a dilbit spill happens in water, the bitumen sinks, making it almost impossible to recover. The Kalamazoo river clean-up, which is ongoing after 3 years, included efforts to dredge and re-dredge the river which have not yet been totally successful. Cleaning up dilbit spills is something oil companies haven’t had much experience with—a fact that was made embarrassingly apparent when Exxon Mobil was caught trying to clean up its dilbit spill in Arkansas with pieces of paper towel.
The Goodman’s Group’s cost-benefit analysis “concludes that the potential economic costs could exceed . . . the potential economic benefits” of the pipeline reversal, with benefits “in the order of less than $1 billion per year and 200 jobs per year over the period of 2013-2043.” The report also voices concern over Enbridge’s financial ability to fully clean up and remediate a spill from Line 9. While their dilbit spill in the 7,000 person community of Marshall has exceeded $1 billion in clean-up costs, the report estimates that the potential costs of a Line 9 rupture could range from $5 to $10 billion in damages, and notes that Enbridge is currently only insured $685 million in case of an oil spill. As we have already witnessed, following the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, companies can find ways to avoid paying clean-up costs following a catastrophe of their making.
But other than questions of financial liability, there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t trust Enbridge. The company has demonstrated an almost pathological aversion to learning from its mistakes. Despite Line 9’s history of leaks, the company’s website boasts that the pipeline has delivered crude “safely and reliably since 1976.” Similarly, in Richard Kuprewicz’s report he warns that Enbridge has not modified its safety procedures since Kalamazoo, ignoring recommendations made by the US federal National Transportation Safety Board. He argues that the companies proposed emergency response times of 1.5 to 4 hours for major cities is “not adequate or appropriate” and that the company still relies on the disproven technology that “played a major role in the more than 17 hours it took to recognize a rupture at Marshall, MI had occurred.” Kuprewicz also warns that Enbridge is depending too heavily on “smart-pig” technology to assess its pipeline—an electronic monitoring system that “underestimated crack depths” in Line 6B and has a non-conservative crack-assessment bias “known both to the pig vendor GE and Enbridge.”
Following the Kalamazoo rupture, the NTSB offered one of the most damning indictments of a pipeline operator in history. Comparing Enbridge’s employees to an utterly inept slapstick comedy police force from the 1920s, the NTSB’s chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said that her “investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment… despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures.”
The NTSB also accused Enbridge of having a “culture of deviance,” stating in a press release that“personnel had developed an operating culture in which not adhering to approved procedures and protocols was normalized.” And it’s hard to believe that this culture of deviance has been addressed or remedied by the company. When the NEB investigated Enbridge earlier this year to see if they had complied with pipeline safety laws that date back to 1994 and 1999, they found that Enbridge had not bothered to install mandatory emergency back-up power systems at 117 of 125 of their pumping stations across the country and that 83 pumping stations lacked emergency shut-down buttons. And although the company is now installing this basic safety equipment, they seem to have also lied in their most recent application to the NEB. Their application claims that performing hydrotests to check the integrity of Line 9, a gold standard in pipeline testing, could damage the pipeline and therefore is out of the question. But as Richard Kuprewicz writes: “Enbridge statements suggesting that such hydrotests can damage a transmission pipeline, or be dangerous to the pipeline, are without technical merit, and appear to be attempts to misinform decision makers and the public.”
Luckily for Enbridge, getting a pipeline approved is easier now than it ever has been. There will be no independent environmental assessment for the pipeline. And according to Adam Scott of Environmental Defence, the NEB’s own environmental assessment process is conducted “entirely on the basis of what the proponent [Enbridge] submits” to the board. “There used to be a federal environmental assessment process that was mandatory for projects like this,” he explained. “When Bill C-38 went in, the federal government’s Omnibus Budget, they gutted the federal Environmental Assessment Act, the National Energy Board Act, the Fisheries Act, as well as a few other pieces of critical environmental legislation in the country. . . So Line 9 is actually the very first project to go ahead within this gutted environmental system.”
At the whims of the NEB, Line 9 could be carrying diluted bitumen by early 2014, following hearings in October that will be met with protest. Phase one of the project, a reversal from Sarnia to Westover (Hamilton), has already been approved—prompting an activist occupation of the Westover pump station. We can only hope that the few members of the NEB who hold unequivocal power over future of Ontario and Quebec are paying some attention to the protesters chanting outside of their hearing—and haven’t been seduced by the Monorail-esque sales pitch that Enbridge is pushing.