Energy East Concerns: Pipeline Spills

Last week’s edition described why the issue of the proposed Energy East pipeline needs to be considered in greater detail. Understandably, the first concern that comes to mind for North Grenville residents is the impact of a spill.

It is an indisputable fact that even a pipeline built to “the highest available technical standards” and implemented with “cutting-edge contingency planning and emergency response programs” will leak. The question is not “if” it will leak, but “when”, “where” and “how much”.

Coming from Stittsville, much of the Energy East pipeline will pass through wetlands before crossing the Rideau River at the Baxter Conservation Area, then it will run through agricultural lands. This was deemed reasonable for the existing pipeline when it was first approved for natural gas, but is it still reasonable for oils and diluted bitumen?

We are told that the pipeline’s automated leak detection system can only sense a leak greater than 1.5% of the flow rate; that’s a rate of more than 2.6 million litres per day. A leak of that size could occur in one of our regional wetlands, out of sight until it became large enough to be spotted or smelled by a passerby, which is unfortunately how many pipeline leaks are commonly detected.

Once into the water of the wetland the spill would spread more easily, contaminating much wider areas than it might if it was in drier, more absorbent soil. Then there is the issue of recovery from rivers and wetlands, where it is impossible to recover all the lost oil. A point is reached where cleaning up all the remaining oil will cause destruction of the ecosystem.

The difficulties of recovery are further complicated for dilbit. For one, the diluent, which is made up of lighter, toxic hydrocarbons, tends to separate and evaporate from the dilbit mixture, leaving the thicker, heavier bitumen to sink and mix into riverbeds and marsh sediment.

As for the Rideau River, a spill on land or from a leak under the river could seep into the Rideau and be carried very far downstream. Locks, sluices, and spill containment dams would help, but are unlikely to be 100% effective. All but the smallest amounts of oil or bitumen in the river could bring major ecological damage, a halt to recreational use, impacts on tourism, potential health impacts for people living along the river, and losses to property value. Again, much of that bitumen would likely remain on the river bottom for a very long time.

Lastly, there is our most vulnerable source of drinking water: the Oxford aquifer, from which 70% of the people in North Grenville get all their water. It is recharged by surface water like rain and snow melt that works its way through the very thin layer of soil in our region – including in our wetlands – and moves through the layer of fractured rock just below it. A spill can easily work its way into the Oxford aquifer and TransCanada has stated that it could pollute an area up to almost a kilometer from the spill site as contaminants insidiously seep through the highly fractured rock. And it is not hard to imagine how easily wide areas could have unsafe water for many, many years from even a small spill. Even if TransCanada provides water and compensation for lost property values, it will be cold comfort for those with great attachment to their lands.

“Energy East Spill Factoids”

  • Energy East’s planned maximum capacity is 1.1 million barrels per day. That’s just under 175 billion litres.
  • How Much is 1.1 Million Barrels?
    • A layer 1 ¼” thick of oil “product” on the surface of the Rideau River from Baxter Conservation Area where the pipeline crosses the Rideau to the Ottawa River*.  That would be a lot of dead birds, fish and amphibians, but dilbit doesn’t stay on the surface and the carcinogens in the diluent would affect a wide area beyond the river. (* Assume average width at surface is 120m, length from crossing to river approximately 43.3 km; surface area = 51,996,000 m2)
    • Visualize a building that is 1 acre in area, 14 stories tall, and filled with dilbit. Many of us can visualize how large an acre is (sub-urban development lot size).  The proposed Kemptville downtown high-rise will be shorter and have less volume.
  • The fastest shutdown possible for the system is 22 minutes. Assuming a scenario with a severed line and an immediate shutdown response, 2.7 million litres of dilbit could be pumped out before it is closed. More could leak out as the breached section bleeds out.
  • Leaks smaller than 1.5% of the flow rate cannot be detected by pipeline sensors. That is up to 2.6 million litres, or enough leakage to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool every day.
  • Most spills are not detected by automation. TransCanada’s Mainline Pipeline system has had nine catastrophic events since 1991. Despite TransCanada’s claims of strict spill monitoring controls, almost all of the spills were discovered by people, not fancy electronic monitoring systems.