The Gift that Keeps on Misgiving: An (Unending) Ottawa Dilbit Spill

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The Gift that Keeps on Misgiving: An (Unending) Ottawa Dilbit Spill

By Mike Fletcher

In my last article I discussed how a pipeline rupture will impact our community as a short term crisis event. Now, I’ll discuss what a somewhat futile, longer term clean-up will look like, and how a serious spill would keep on giving.

A spill on land will have similarities to the Mayflower, Arkansas spill, where thousands of barrels of dilbit spilled in suburban Arkansas in 2013. The strong similarities will be that the spill clean-up will involve removing contaminated soil and the immediate area around the spill will permanently depopulate.

A key difference will involve ground water around Ottawa, where the Oxford aquifer in the area of the spill, owing to its porous nature, will definitely become contaminated. The long term response will likely involve monitoring and perhaps pumping and treating ground water for decades. If the spill contaminates the well water systems of either Richmond or Munster communities, water may have to be trucked to either or both of these communities until a new water supply system can be constructed. Monitoring, treatment and new water systems would all be costly and we don’t know who would pay.

A land spill doesn’t sound nice, but a spill into a waterway would be much more serious. Here again there will be similarities and difference with past dilbit spills but also differences which will make things harder for the clean-up.

In the Kalamazoo, Michigan spill, where around 4 million litres of dilbit spilled in 2010, bitumen clumps sitting on the river bottom were often broken up by workers situated on boats probing the river bed with aeration rods. There will be less scope for this, however, should dilbit get to the Ottawa River where many deep river sections would not be reachable with such light equipment. Also, in the deep sections of Lac Chat and Lac des Chenes the temperature never rises above 4°C. At this temperature, bitumen will break down very slowly (hardly at all). Nevertheless, if there’s enough bitumen on the river bottom, there maybe enough consumption of oxygen to kill off aquatic life. This will include many fish species, such as lake trout, that head to the deeper cold waters in summer. But ecological damage won’t stop there, as there will be further unintended effects to the ecosystem from having one part of it rendered sterile.

Additionally we might find that our colder climate will make a clean-up much tougher. If the dilbit gets under the ice in the fall, winter or spring, just knowing the breadth of the spill, much less cleaning it up, will be a huge challenge. Aerial surveillance is a popular way to track the spread of spills but this surveillance method will be completely futile at finding dilbit submerged under ice.

If the owners of the pipeline have deep enough pockets at the time of the spill, they’ll likely hire contractors to do the clean up. These contractors will be under enormous pressure to undertake a rapid and effective clean-up. They will know that perception will mean a great deal in how the effectiveness of their clean-up efforts are judged by the public and as a result may succumb to some less-than-rigorous clean-up methods.

There is evidence emerging in the Kalamazoo spill, for instance, that clean-up contractor(s) used un-regulated chemical dispersants (dumped into the river by the truckload) to break up the spill. Clean-ups efforts concerned more about appearances than results will use chemical dispersants as they break-up the oily sheen that makes a bad visual on the six o’clock news. But if mitigating damage for a spill is the true goal, adding more chemical compounds to the mess, in the form of dispersants, is horrendous step backwards.

This then brings us to the issue of clean-up oversight. In US, spill clean-up is policed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an organization at arm's length from the federal government. As an organization, they have displayed independence and backbone. In the Kalamazoo spill, they disagreed with Enbridge about the quantity of the spill, forcing Enbridge to do extra clean-up work and they rejected a request from Enbridge for an extension to a clean-up deadline.

But what would happen in Canada? At the federal level, Environment Canada does not have the arm's length independence from partisan politics that the EPA does in the US. Stories are now surfacing of the Harper government preventing any scientists from doing their research and publishing data that would raise legitimate concerns about the occurrence and impacts of climate change, and preventing them from speaking to the public.

More recent news tells us of records of federal scientific information being destroyed. So it would be highly foolish to believe that the federal government, intensely partisan and closely linked to the petroleum industry, would mount an effective oversight of a spill clean up. Other jurisdictions would have the some resources to do some monitoring and deal with some of the impacts, but will not have the authority over the pipeline operator to ensure that the best possible attempt at a clean-up is made.

 Why this Pipeline will Leak or Rupture

I have written in this article and previously about to how truly awful a pipeline spill will be. By now, readers are quite naturally weighing the risk of such an occurrence and trying to decide if this project is worth the risk. Although I oppose the pipeline for reasons other than the spill (climate change from fossil fuels and environmental damage in northern Alberta), I certainly believe that the “Energy East” proposal, should it come to fruition, will bring grief. The following are the top reasons why I believe this pipe, if ever put into dilbit service, will rupture.

 1. Because it has a history of doing so.

The TransCanada mainline has been around for approximately 50 years. On average it has had a rupture along the Winnipeg to Ottawa section every ten years. More recent incidents have happened in Armstrong Ontario and Winnipeg. The Winnipeg incident is very recent (it occurred just a few months ago) and actually represents an increase in rupture frequency. This increasing failure rate is what would expect from aging equipment and is likely a trend.

 2. Because it’s old and was designed for natural gas.

Transporting dilbit would be an incredible change in the duty for the existing pipe to perform. Pre-1970’s piping (i.e. the type of pipe TransCanada is proposing to convert) is predisposed to cracking and corrosion along lengthwise seams. Dilbit is not easy to pump, and when pushing it through a pipe, pressure fluctuations occur. Such pressure fluctuation have been known for years contribute to elongation of stress cracks.

Another way to elongate stress cracks is by chemical means. Most dilbit is relatively high in concentrations of hydrogen sulphide. In solution, the hydrogen portion of hydrogen sulphide will often disassociate and cause damage. This mechanism of hydrogen embrittlement is widely known; in iron based metals, hydrogen gets between the iron atoms and forces them further apart9. Iron molecules being forced further apart is the thin edge of the wedge in a crack pipe, with pressure fluctuations doing the larger scale work.

Overall the two methods of attacking piping can build cracks to the point that a rupture occurs.

In Michigan, it was a pipe of roughly the same age as our TransCanada line through Ottawa that failed and decimated Kalamazoo. It’s a telling postscript that after the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge is now replacing the entire 300km of the 6B line involved in the disaster.

 3. Because its conversion to oil will be disruptive.

The conversion of the gas pipeline will require the cutting and capping of branches that currently serve natural gas customers. Each of theses branch caps will be a unique field job involving old pipe. People who work in quality know that it’s much harder to bring good results to many unique operations or actions, of which this work is an example, than it is to bring quality to a single repetitive operation (which might be the case if TransCanada were installing a new pipeline everywhere).

 4. TransCanada doesn’t have a safety or quality culture.

What does TransCanada do to its employees who act as whistle blowers? It sometimes fires them. In a recent case a welding inspector for TransCanada felt compelled to speak out about the quality of pipeline welds had his employment terminated. In Texas, on the southern leg of the TransCanada Keystone pipeline, local public pressure was required to get TransCanada to fix obvious pipe defects such as dents and sags. Monitoring personnel and systems might sound nice but the Kalamazoo spill went on for 17 hours before shut-off, an event that supports the observation that most automated systems don’t work with over 90% of spills being detected by the general public. Even in Ottawa we've been told by a resident who lives along the current Mainline that she had to wait years for TransCanada to come along and fix equipment laying around on her property. Finally, is notable that for this project TransCanada going outside their organization to find a project manager (it’s posted on Linked in). The lack of internal candidates deemed suitable does not give one reassurance about TransCanada’s in-house expertise.

 This pipeline proposal has problems, but don’t we need energy?

In the last several articles, I’ve given compelling reasons against having a dilbit pipeline going through Ottawa. When I have campaigned about this issue door to door, I’ve been asked what I suggest as a way to get energy in the quantity and forms that we need. It’s a fair question and one I can’t ignore. In my next work, I’ll address how the $15 billion required for the “Energy East” pipeline could be better spent in ways that move us away from finite and increasingly destructive (and expensive) fossil fuel sourced energy and instead give us a prosperous, clean and secure future. Stay tuned!

About the Author

 Mike Fletcher has a professional background that includes process engineering and energy management. Mike chose to educate himself about this project when it was announced and has found so many pitfalls with this proposed project that he feels compelled to speak out to protect the physical safety and environment of his community and the wider world.

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