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Sheridan Brown: NH is vulnerable to an oil spill and needs some protection

March 12. 2014 6:42PM

Today, the New Hampshire Senate has an opportunity to protect our state’s natural resources, residents and visitors by supporting Senate Bill 325 to improve oil spill preparedness in New Hampshire.

Crude oil is currently transported from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec, through a 49-year-old, 24-inch pipeline passing through the towns of Shelburne, Gorham, Randolph, Jefferson and Lancaster. Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company and Portland Pipe Line Company (PPLC) — subsidiaries of Imperial Oil (Exxon), Shell Oil and Canada’s Suncor — own this pipeline and a more than 60-year-old, presently idle, 18-inch pipeline alongside it.

An oil spill anywhere along the pipelines’ route would have a devastating impact upon our North Country’s communities, environment and economy. The pipeline right-of-way, which roughly parallels U.S. Route 2, has more than 70 stream and wetland crossings, including the Connecticut and Androscoggin rivers.

In July 2010, when a 41-year-old, 30-inch pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners (Enbridge) ruptured near Marshall, Mich., at least 843,000 gallons of diluted bitumen (dilbit, or tar sands crude) flowed into the Kalamazoo River. Cleanup efforts to date have cost nearly $1 billion, and an estimated 180,000 gallons of petroleum remain in river sediment today.

Enbridge has expressed its interest in transporting dilbit from Montreal to Portland, Maine, by reversing flow on PPLC’s 18-inch pipeline (as part of its 2008 “Trailbreaker” proposal). Although that proposal was abandoned during the 2009 economic downturn, Enbridge continued to seek approval for the final leg of a project to pipe dilbit from the Alberta tar sands region to Montreal.

Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) granted its approval for the Enbridge project last week, which will soon renew pressure to reverse flow through PPLC’s 18-inch pipeline, increasing spill risks in New Hampshire.

Reversing flow changes the hydraulics and pressures within a pipeline, which can cause failures in an aging infrastructure. PPLC — in arguing for lower property tax assessments — has said that the usable life of its pipeline is between 60 and 78 years.

Additionally, dilbit behaves very differently from conventional heavy crude oil when spilled. Once released from a pipe, light hydrocarbons — used to thin bitumen enough to make it flow — evaporate into the air, creating toxic fumes. The heavy bitumen can then sink in water, coating river bottoms, smothering aquatic life, and making cleanup very costly and difficult.

Federal oversight and industry inspection practices have significant weaknesses. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulations leave substantial discretion to pipeline operators. For example, industry personnel are left to determine the appropriate resources to position near pipelines for spill response. Meanwhile, PHMSA has just 135 agents tasked with overseeing 2.6 million miles of pipeline.

Worse yet, required inspections by pipeline operators are usually performed by “smart pigs” that the Wall Street Journal reports “are not reliable for finding all serious flaws” (Aug. 16, 2013). These robotic devices, which use various sensors to look for problems, were used for 93 percent of all pipeline inspections in 2012. Exxon sent a smart pig through its 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Ark., just one month before it developed a 22-foot split and released 117,600 gallons of crude.

Nonetheless, because of a paucity of resources for spill preparedness, the destiny of New Hampshire’s natural resources is currently left in the hands of PHMSA officials and oil industry personnel — a dangerous gamble.

SB 325 would assess a small annual license fee on oil pipeline facilities based upon their capacity (roughly $250,000 for a pipeline transporting about 8 million gallons per day). The revenue, dedicated to the state’s Oil Pollution Control Fund, would enable the state Department of Environmental Services to dedicate personnel and equipment to North Country oil spill preparedness and response. Non-pipeline oil importers already pay a license fee.

PPLC representatives downplay the risk of a future spill, citing the absence of a major spill to date. However, small leaks occurred in two PPLC pipe sections in 2003 (within a year after inspection). Additionally, between 2008 and 2013, PPLC received several warning letters and notices from PHMSA requiring procedural deficiencies to be corrected.

Regardless, the past is no predictor of future spill risk — Enbridge’s Chief Executive Pat Daniel called his company’s spill into the Kalamazoo River “an absolute first.” If and when New Hampshire’s first major spill comes, let’s make sure we’ve protected our state — not big oil.

Sheridan Brown is a Grantham attorney who serves as NH Audubon’s legislative coordinator. He may be reached via

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