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Safety Standards Sought for Tar Sands Oil Pipelines
03/26/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Several dozen landowners, current and former government officials and conservation groups from several states are petitioning the federal government to develop new safety standards for tar sands oil pipelines. The groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, are also asking for a moratorium on any new or expanded pipeline projects until new regulations are put in place. Susan Sharon reports.

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The petition filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requests stronger safety requirements for tar sands oil pipelines than for those carrying conventional crude, stronger industry spill response plans and independent pipeline inspection and monitoring.

The groups point out that current federal pipeline regulations were established long before tar sands oil production picked up steam, and Maine's former Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe says they don't go far enough. LaPointe currently serves on the NRCM's board.

"Our concern is there's much at risk for the state of Maine from not having strict pipeline safety regulations - concern for the environment overall, concern for drinking water, concern for human health and concerns for environmental health," LaPointe says. "And those are the reasons we want new regulations for tar sands oil going through the pipeline."

Of special concern in this region is the Portland-Montreal pipeline that crosses through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. In Maine the 62-year-old pipeline crosses the Sebago Lake watershed - the primary drinking water supply for half of Maine residents - nearly a dozen times.

But it also crosses the Presumpscot River, where salmon restoration is underway and which also flows into Casco Bay, where LaPointe says there is an active clamming industry and lobster fishery that could be vulnerable to a spill from the heavier tar sands oil that has been described as having the consistency of "liquid coal."

"If there was a spill the tar sands would go to the bottom of the bay and could have very adverse impacts on those two fisheries," LaPointe says.

While the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company has a good safety record transporting traditional crude, it has never carried tar sands oil. And recently, the company's president has signaled his interest in exploring all the company's assets, including using the pipeline to transport Canadian tar sands oil to its South Portland headquarters, where it could be exported overseas.

Several other tar sands pipeline projects are being proposed around the country. And activists are raising alarms about what they say is a lack of awareness about the risks, including a greater chance of spills because of corrosion and the emission of toxic chemicals used to dilute tar sands, also known as diluted bitumen or dilbit.

John Stoody challenges those concerns. "In terms of the government and safety statistics the record just isn't there to support a concern over diluted bitumen and oil sands," says Stoody, the director of government relations for the Association of Pipelines, a non-profit trade organization that represents owners and operators of liquid pipelines.

Stoody says diluted bitumen has been transported by pipeline for more than 25 years. The Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, keeps records on spills that do occur, and Stoody say the numbers are declining.

"And when you look at the specific causes of a rupture, in no case does PHMSA show that oil sands actually caused the rupture or the accident," he says.

Environmentalists often point to a catastrophic tar sands oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, but Stoody says the cause of that spill was determined to be external corrosion caused by water that got underneath a taped pipeline coating.

The National Academy of Sciences is currently reviewing the risk of corrosion posed by tar sands oil for pipelines. A report on its findings is expected this summer.


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