What are the Risks of a Line 3 Tar Sands Crude Oil Spill? Government Analysis Fails to Give Clear Answers

Last in a series of critiques of the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) on Enbridge Line 3, a proposal to expand and reroute a tar sands crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. Commerce is taking public comments on the adequacy of the EIS until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 2. To learn how to submit comments, click here.

People packed the hall in Bemidji to comment on the draft EIS.

For the last installment, let’s look at how the environmental impact statement (EIS) discusses the risks of a major Line 3 pipeline rupture and what impact it would have on recreation areas, clean waters, wild rice areas and Minnesota tribes. That’s covered in Chapter 10 of the EIS where Commerce analyzes spills.

Chapter 10 is highly technical and seems intentionally opaque, failing to provide readers with any kind of a meaningful summary. It does a very poor job of communicating so people can understand what is at stake and effectively engage in the debate.

This is doubling disturbing since the public hearings on the pipeline’s Certificate of Need and Route Plan already are underway around the state.

The EIS goes into great technical detail about how it modeled potential spills — at seven different sites, considering  two different kinds of crude, and looking at how spills would play out in three different seasons. The format matters as much as the content. It’s not until well into the document that a reader gets the sense of the real life impacts of a spill, and even then it is spread out. Nowhere does the Department of Commerce provide accessible summary information.

The EIS goes overboard putting Enbridge’s best foot forward. In discussing spills, it compares spills along the preferred route to spills along the alternative routes — which have much worse impacts. First, we have no way of knowing whether the alternative routes were chosen to make the preferred route look good. Second, that framing focuses on comparing multiple pipeline routes instead of clearly stating the impacts of Enbridge’s preferred route.

Commerce should have written something like this for the Chapter 10 introduction.

New Introduction to Chapter 10

This chapter analyzes pipeline spills in what are called “high consequence areas,” or HCA’s. HCAs are areas or features where a crude oil pipeline failure, such as a release of crude oil, may have long-term and/or permanent and major impacts on resources. These include populated areas, unusually sensitive ecological areas, and drinking water sources.

First, we analyzed impacts on HCA’s within 2,500 feet of the pipeline’s centerline. These HCA’s include

  • 6,545 acres of populated areas (page 10-77)
  • 5,774 acres of unusually sensitive ecological areas (page 10-79)
  • 1,615 acres of drinking water sources. (page 10-84).
  • 618 domestic wells (page 10-88)
  • 20 public water supplies (page 10-89)
  • 48 acres of reservation (page 10-89)

Table 10.4.8, (page 10-91) aggregates the pipeline’s potential impact on biological areas of interest within 2,500 feet of the pipeline. These include:

  • 38,174 acres of native plant communities
  • 28,047 acres of Minnesota Biological Survey Sites of Biodiversity Significance
  • 675 acres of wild rice lakes
  • 300 acres of sensitive lake shore areas

Table 10.4.9 (page 10-93) provides the following impacts within 2,500 feet of the pipeline route.

  • 31,764 acres of state forest lands
  • 3,350 acres of other forest lands
  • 182 acres of harvested wild rice lakes.

Table 10.4.10 (page 10-96) provides the following recreational impacts within 2,500 feet of the pipeline.

  • 1,299 acres of wildlife management areas
  • 630 acres of state parks
  • 92 acres of waterfowl production areas

Comment: Bringing this data together in one place paints a very different image of Line 3’s potential threats. But we are not done.

Impact Zone 10 Miles Downstream from Pipeline Water Crossings

The EIS also includes an analysis of potential impacts 10 miles downstream from the pipeline at water crossings. Let’s continue to build our summary table for impacts in this new target zone:

  • 4,415 acres of impacted populated areas (page 10-97)
  • 829 acres of drinking water sources (page 10-98)
  • 130 acres of well head protection areas (page 10-98)
  • 146 domestic wells (page 10-99) (Note: They only looked one mile downstream for this one, so it is a poor estimate. It justifies it based on the fact that it comparing the preferred route to alternative routes, so it is apples to apples. Again, that’s bad logic. People want to know the impact 10 miles downstream according to the EIS guidrlines.)
  • 14,015 acres of native plant communities (page 10-101)
  • 3,396 acres of wild rice lakes (page 10-101)
  • 11,589 acres of Minnesota Biological Survey Sites of Biodiversity Significance (page 10-101)
  • 12,005 acres of state and national forest (page 10-102)
  • 1,911 of other forested lands (page 10-102)
  • 982 acres of harvested wild rice lakes (page 10-102)
  • 1,241 wildlife management areas (page 10-103)

Comment: Commerce chose to spread all these impacts from page 77 to page 103, instead of compiling them in a single chart which probably could fit on one page or less. It could have included some other introductory text on impacts. Why not do that? What is offered is an incredible disservice to the public.

Here are a few more thoughts.

EIS Makes Favorable Assumptions for Enbridge

The EIS only estimates how far a tar sands spill would travel downriver within a 24-hour period, for instance, 8 miles down the Mississippi River from Ball Club during spring high water; or 18 miles down the Mississippi River at Palisades. (See chart 10.3-7 on page 10-67.) It calls the 24-hour time frame conservative by saying: “Enbridge would immediately mobilize a response that would contain and collect oil in the event that a release [were] to be detected.” That is an assumption favorable to Enbridge, which doesn’t have a great environmental track record.

The EIS Minimizes Enbridge’s Poor Track Record

Many of those who spoke at public hearings about the draft EIS pointed to the 2010 Enbridge crude oil pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River as a red flag for what could happen in Minnesota.  A more extensive case study of this spill should have been included in the EIS, including the clean up costs and the amount of the spill that could not be fixed.

Enbridge has one of the worst safety records of major pipeline companies and was called out as incompetent by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for its Kalamazoo spill, according to the Sierra Club. Enbridge’s pipelines had more than 800 spills in the U.S. and Canada between 1999 and 2010, leaking 6.8 million gallons of oil.

A 2012 Washington Post story “NTSB blames Enbridge, ‘weak’ regulations in Kalamazoo oil spill” raises serious concerns about Enbridge as a partner, saying the NTSB “blamed multiple corrosion cracks and ‘pervasive organizational failures’ at the Calgary-based Enbridge pipeline company for a more-than-20,000-barrel oil spill two years ago near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.”

The EIS uses very soft language to describe Enbridge’s problem, saying the NTSB, “identified deficiencies in training of first responders and emergency response resources as one of the inadequacies of the response following the 2010 [Michigan rupture].” (Page 10-130) The EIS went on to become an apologist for Enbridge:

To improve safety training, the Enbridge Enterprise Emergency Response Team was created in 2011 as a cross-company team with specialized training. The team regularly conducts major training exercises involving emergency response contractors and consultants, as well as emergency response agencies at the local, state/provincial, and federal levels.The Enbridge Enterprise Emergency Response Team is trained to respond to large-scale events in Enbridge operational locations in North America.

This is one more example of where Commerce seems to downplay the Line 3 critics and put Enbridge’s best foot forward, uncritically.

Enbridge Omits Information that Should Be Available

The spill models leave out information on the specific volume of the spill. (See the “volume out” column on chart 10.3-7 on page 10-67. It is blank.) The footnote says Enbridge classified that data as “non-public.” It is hard to believe it’s proprietary information. One has to wonder if the spill sizes are so big, Enbridge does not want them public. The Administrative Law Judge will decide if it is public or not, but that will be well after most if not all public hearings.

The Public is in the Dark About the Toxins in the Tar Sands Crude Oil

One of the challenges for transporting tar sands is that it is a very heavy and viscous and doesn’t easily flow through pipelines. Companies dilute the tar sands with various chemicals to make it flow. The resulting product is called “dilbit,” for diluted bitumen. During a spill, these added chemicals can get dispersed into the air or stay with the crude. What specific chemicals are used are not specified. Here is what the EIS says:

In general, the toxic properties of both bitumen and diluents are similar to those of other crude oil products, including conventional heavy crude; however, little research has been conducted specifically on the toxicity of dilbit to organisms. The components of the diluents are commonly found in other crude oils. Both crude oil and bitumen may contain several potentially toxic metals, stable and persistent resins, and asphaltenes.

That is not reassuring.

The EIS Uses Measures that Benefit Enbridge

The EIS says: “In order to quantify the incremental risk for the Line 3 Project, the potential spills that might occur need to be compared with the baseline of spills occurring from existing pipelines in the area.” (page 10-19) So Commerce is saying the EIS doesn’t have to look at the total amount of spillage, just the incremental difference between how much the new Line 3 spills and the baseline of spills, as if the baseline of spills is an acceptable yardstick. It is not.

The EIS Failed to Engage Native Women in Addressing the Issue of Man Camps and Sexual Exploitation (or at least the Information is not in the Text)

Let’s switch to Chapter 11, the Environmental Justice section, (pages 11-20 and 21) which identifies an important concern:

An additional concern during construction are the influx of temporary workers. A recent study on the economic impacts of replacing Line 3 indicates that approximately half of the workers employed during the construction of the proposed Line 3 pipeline are expected to come from outside the 15-county area along the Applicant’s preferred route. The report estimates that 4,200 workers will be employed. Off those, 2,100 non-local construction workers are expected to be employed for 1.3 years, 6 days a week. The purpose of the report is to present the contribution this workforce will have on local economies, yet it also reinforces concerns that come with a large influx of temporary workers for an extended period of time. Concerns have been raised regarding the link between an influx of temporary workers and the potential for an associated increase in sex trafficking, which is well documented, particularly among Native populations. (National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center 2016). American Indian and minority populations are often at higher risk if they are low-income, homeless, have a lack of resources, addiction, and other factors often found in tribal communities (MDH 2014). The addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur. Additionally, rural areas often do not have the resources necessary to detect and prevent these activities.

Comment: I find the frame disturbing.  “The purpose of the report is to present the contribution this workforce will have on local economies, yet it also reinforces concerns that come with a large influx of temporary workers for an extended period of time.” It’s the “yet” part of the sentence. It seems to put a higher priority on jobs than protecting women, which apparently is an aside.

The EIS offers the solution on page 11-23:

To address the potential for sexual abuse or sex trafficking, Enbridge can fund or prepare and implement an education plan or awareness campaign around this issue with the companies and subcontractors it hires to construct, restore, and operate the pipeline. Enbridge can also provide funding to local and tribal law enforcement to identify and stop sex trafficking.

They make it sound so easy. It also does not appear that they talked to any Native women or Native communities about this problem or the proposed solution. Enbridge says they can fix it, and Commerce quietly nods in agreement, apparently without question.

For this and many other reasons, the EIS is inadequate and should be redone, with a more readable format and less bias.

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