Enbridge’s Line 3 pipes have sat in storage yards for years, exposed to the elements. Have they lost their anti-corrosion protection?

A Texas expose raises important questions for Minnesota

An investigative report on pipeline safety by KXAN in Texas raises new questions about the safety of Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 tar sands pipeline through northern Minnesota.

The report by Austin, Texas-based KXAN focused on Kinder Morgan’s planned Permian Highway Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline stretching from the Texas-New Mexico border to Katy, a town just west of Houston. Starting last June, the company began stacking pipelines along the route, preparing for construction. The pipes have been exposed to the elements for roughly 10 months. Based on industry standards, pipeline opponents now challenge the integrity of pipes anti-corrosion coating due to long sun exposure.

Similar questions need to be asked about Enbridge Line 3’s pipeline storage yards. Such pipe yards have been popping up along Line 3’s proposed route through northern Minnesota for years. Those pipes, too, have been exposed to sun and harsh elements which could damage their anti-corrosion protective coatings.

When pipeline’s corrode, they spill.

Line 3 pipeline storage yard near White Earth, fall 2017.

The National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators, an association of companies around the world that that apply pipe coatings, “and promotes standardized protective coating practices.” According one of its bulletins:

The intended use of these coatings is to provide corrosion protection for buried pipelines. Above ground storage of coated pipe in excess of 6 months without additional Ultraviolet protection is not recommended.

For comparison, Enbridge was applying for pipeline storage yard permits as far back as 2014, when it was still pursuing permits for both Line 3 and the Sandpiper Pipeline. (It dropped the Sandpiper project in the fall of 2016.)

Pipeline storage year in a Carlton County gravel pit, December, 2018.

In Texas, pipeline opponents took their concerns to the state’s Railroad Commission, the government body that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. According to a follow-up story by KXAN, the Railroad Commission decided to investigate.

The initial investigation was flimsy at best. The Commission only inspected one of several pipeline storage yards — and then only inspected a total of eight pipes. It concluded that the protective coating was within “tolerance.”

Pipeline opponents criticized the review, saying the sample size was too small and ignored other storage sites. Public pressure succeeded in getting the Railroad Commission to agree to investigate pipes at the other storage yards. Those inspections haven’t yet taken place.

Minnesota has an even stronger case for demanding inspections of the anti-corrosion coating on Enbridge’s pipes. In Texas, the pipes had been outside for less than a year. Here, Enbridge has had pipelines exposed to the sun and elements for years. Enbridge had “stacks of pipe” at several staging areas around Minnesota, according to a Nov. 19, 2017 Star Tribune article. That’s almost two-and-a-half years ago.

And pipes have likely had longer exposures. Here is a list of pipeline storage yard applications Enbridge made to the MPCA from 2014 and 2015. Depending on when the pipes started arriving after Enbridge got its storm water permits, some pipes could have five or more years of outdoor exposure.

Enbridge’s Line 3 Replacement Project summary states that the “anti-corrosion coating” is part of its commitment to safety.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC’s) Sept. 5, 2018 order approving Line 3’s Certificate of Need justifies its approval in part based on the fact that the new pipeline would “reduce the risk of an accidental oil release” because it would have such things as “stronger steel and superior coating.” (The PUC is revising the Certificate of Need, but this language is unlikely to change.)

For pipes that have been laying around outside for up to five years, it’s not clear they still have adequate anti-corrosion protection. It’s not clear the PUC’s conclusion that the new Line 3 would have “superior coating” is accurate.

A call and email to the PUC this afternoon seeking comment on whether it was looking into this issue were not immediately returned. We will publish the PUC’s response when we receive it.

According to the original KXAN story, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines, says there are no federal rules limiting pipe coating exposure to ultraviolet radiation. That’s concerning.

It continued:

[PHMSA] is responsible for inspecting pipeline coatings and the condition of the coatings of pipelines as they’re under construction. But, the agency doesn’t inspect every pipe segment of the nation’s 2.8 million miles of pipeline.

Surely, Minnesota’s environmental protection standards are as strong or stronger than in Texas. If it comes to the worst-case scenario where Line 3 is getting built, we shouldn’t wait for PHMSA to inspect Line 3 pipes as they are being placed in the ground. We need a state inspection of the condition of anti-corrosion coating on Enbridge’s pipes at each of the company’s storage yards.

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