The difficulty of getting a clear answer on the protective coating on Enbridge Line 3’s pipes

One of Enbridge’s pipe storage yards. Photo taken summer, 2017

Last week’s blog raised questions about the safety of the pipes Enbridge plans to use to build a crude oil pipeline across 355 miles of  northern Minnesota. The pipes for Line 3 have sat outside in storage yards for years, exposed to the elements. The pipes have anti-corrosion coating that is supposed to protect them underground, but it’s not good for them to sit outside as the sun can degrade the coating.

It seemed like a reasonable question to ask: “What role do regulators play in assuring the pipe’s protective coating still has its integrity if and when Line 3 is built?

It’s been challenging to get a direct answer. The bottom line seems to be that regulators don’t play a role. They have deferred that responsibility to Enbridge. They just seem reluctant to admit it.

An investigative report by Austin, Texas-based KXAN flagged the issue. It started asking questions about the safety of the pipes Kinder Morgan plans to use for a natural gas pipeline in Texas. The story cited an industry bulletin that said: “Above ground storage of coated pipe in excess of 6 months without additional [ultraviolet] protection is not recommended.”

Corroded pipeline are more likely to spill and leak. As it relates to Line 3, spills threaten clean water and wild rice. Ojibwe people have treaty-protected rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands they ceded to the U.S. government under the 1854 and 1855 treaties, lands Line 3 would cross.

I emailed Will Seuffert, Executive Secretary of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and asked if the PUC or any state agency was looking into the question of whether long-term storage of the Line 3 pipes outdoors had an impact on their anti-corrosion coating.

I didn’t get a direct “yes” or “no.” Seuffert told me the answer was in the public record, and referred me to a single document: Line 3 Replacement Project Pipeline Safety Report, published by Enbridge in 2017. I downloaded the 271-page report. I didn’t read the whole thing. I did a keyword search on the word “coating.” It appeared 23 times. The report talked about how the coating was “state of the art,” but had nothing to say on how long pipes could be safely stored outside before compromising the anti-corrosion coating.

I emailed Seuffert Thursday and said the document didn’t answer my question. I noted that the PUC justified approving Line 3 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 “superior coating.” The fact that these pipelines have sat outside so long calls that statement into question.

As of today, I haven’t received a reply. I will publish it when I receive it.

Seuffert’s original email said if I had further questions, I should contact the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety or the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety said it plays no role in inspecting Line 3.

I emailed PHMSA with questions about the issue of exposed pipes in storage yards in general and Line 3 storage yards in particular. I received a prompt but brief response. Again, no direct answers. Instead, I was referred to federal rules 49 CFR Part 192 and federal rules 49 CFR Part 195.

Here are the two rules that seemed most on point:

Rule § 195.561 said the pipeline operator (in this case Enbridge) “must inspect all external pipe coating … just prior to lowering the pipe into the ditch or submerging the pipe.” Further, the operator “must repair any coating damage discovered.”

Rule § 195.583 says if a buried pipeline becomes exposed to the atmosphere, operators must inspect it every three years. However, there is no similar rule regarding inspections of pipelines that sit outside in a storage yards — completely exposed to the atmosphere — for prolonged periods of time.

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