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Questions asked at Sandpiper oil pipeline public meeting

Residents turned out to ask questions, and one resident proposed an alternate route, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held a public comment and question session Wednesday, March 12, in the Pine River-Backus School commons area on the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline.

The oil pipeline could extend from Beaver Lodge Station in North Dakota to Superior, Wis., going through parts of Cass County.

Representatives of the North Dakota Pipeline Company (NDPC), a collaboration between Marathon Petroleum Corp. and Enbridge Inc., answered questions. This meeting was a fact-finding meeting intended to discuss routing issues.

Ron Vegemast of Crooked Lake Township, a retired but still licensed professional engineer, submitted a proposed alternate route for the Sandpiper to the PUC. The alternate route would be 29 miles longer than the currently proposed route; however, Vegemast used those additional miles to reduce the possible damage that could result from a leak.

“The real issue is comparative risk as far as I see it. The proposed route has thousands of property owners at risk. There are far, far fewer along the route I have suggested,” Vegemast said.

Vegemast said his route also does not cross the Mississippi River, while the proposed route crosses it twice.

Vegemast said the proposed route posed a risk to properties along the Whitefish Chain of Lakes. He used property values and locations to estimate that a prolonged leak could accumulate $2 billion in damages in addition to cleanup costs. He warned that a company called Freedom Industries out of Charleston, S.C., was forced to file for bankruptcy when it received a lawsuit from a similar disaster. Even with safety systems, stopping oil from spilling takes time.

“(Enbridge has) a record in the past of confusion at control stations for what is happening on the pipelines. Spills do happen, and sometimes they are quite dramatic. A split in the pipe can release an awful lot of oil, and you don’t just shut off a valve when you have 132 tons of oil going down a 30-inch pipeline without rupturing that pipe way back. It can take hours to shut that pipe down and an awful lot of oil can flow through that pipe in that amount of time,” Vegemast said.

Vegemast also said his alternate route would have opposition. It is more expensive, it crosses more state forest and wildlife management area, it might draw in fewer people to local businesses for hotels and meals, and it would still cross through private property. Vegemast suggested that the reduced risk was worth it.

Charles Makidon of Gail Lake Township informed Enbridge representatives at the meeting that some of the company’s third party contractors hired for surveying were disrupting deer hunting by walking in large groups through local forest lands without blaze orange on. He said he did not disapprove of the pipeline, but asked that the company keep respect for the locals in mind.

“Treat us with respect and everything will be just fine,” Makidon said.

Gregory Johnson of Barclay Township asked about the sensitivity of leak detection instruments and asked why most leaks are detected by locals, and not by pipeline employees.

Engineer Barry Simonson with the NDPC explained that leaks are detected through pressure loss and through measurements that track the amount of oil that goes into a section of pipeline compared to the amount that goes out of a section of pipeline. Simonson said the instruments were very sensitive.

NDPC representatives did not dispute that most leaks are discovered by locals; however, they did not directly address why locals would be those who discover them.

“The most common cause of a leak is contact with a pipeline by a third party like an excavator or somebody digging, or things like that,” said Mark Curwin with the NDPC.

Barbara Kaufman of Wilson Township asked who is responsible in the case of an oil spill. She also asked what assurances there were that there would be no repeat of the Kalamazoo River spill, which is still being cleaned up three years later.

“We are responsible for all of it. We are responsible for cleaning it up. We are responsible for the costs of any of the regulatory agencies who would respond to the incident, and we are responsible to compensate you for any damages that would occur to your property,” Curwin said. “That is exactly what happened in Kalamazoo. We took full responsibility for that. We’re still there now. We’re still there now because we agree with the regulators that there is still work to be done. We will be there as long as necessary to address any concerns that the residents or the regulators have in Kalamazoo. We would do the same anywhere on our system. We don’t just respond and walk away. We will be there as long as necessary to address any issues that might arise from an incident.”

On multiple occasions, NDPC representatives were asked if the Sandpiper would carry tar sands. NDPC representatives gave the same answer each time.

“This pipeline will serve solely the production that is in the Bakken and the Three Forks (crude oil),” Curwin said.

Marty Cobenais, formerly of the Indigenous Environmental Network, drilled the NDPC on many different subjects. NDPC representatives pointed out that some of his comments and questions did not relate to routing, which was the subject being discussed at the meeting.

Cobenais stated that even though leak detection instruments might be sensitive, they are sometimes ignored. The NDPC did not respond to this.

Cobenais also asked why landowners are being given 30 days to accept a contract for the easement on their properties, after which time the amount of money offered is greatly reduced. Cobenais said this amount in some cases has been reduced to less than a quarter of the first offer.

NDPC’s legal counsel John Gasele said the 30-day offer is considered an early signing bonus used to obtain easements amicably.

Cobenais also asked if the many wild rice beds along the route were being considered in the route application. He was told that they were.

Many factors are considered in the case of issuing a routing permit, including human settlements, natural environment, archaeological and historic resources, economy, cost, use of existing right-of-way, cumulative effects of future pipeline construction, and compliance with regulations. In the case of environmental issues, both the PUC and the NDPC are able to hire third party researchers for a comparative environmental study. Many other issues and facts come from public meetings.

Concerns raised at public meetings are added to the subjects discussed when reviewing an application for a route permit.

NDPC representatives answered many other questions. They said the pipeline would be directionally bored under rivers and roadways. Pipelines are coated to prevent corrosion in all cases, but in the case of directional boring they are also given an abrasive resistant coating to resist abrasion. The pipe would be 24 inches wide until Clearbrook and it would be 30 inches wide for the rest of the route in order to accept a greater flow.

Thickness of pipes can vary from .469 inches to .625 inches depending on need. Valve placement and pipe length are determined by topography. All pipe sections are hydrotested for pressure. The Sandpiper would be buried 36 to 54 inches deep depending on state regulations.

NDPC representatives also said they have already begun contracting and paying for easements. Tracy Smetana with the PUC said this is legal, but it is also not allowed to be considered by the PUC in deciding whether or not to award the NDPC a Certificate of Need or route permit.

In addition to a route permit, the Sandpiper requires a Certificate of Need from the PUC. Both the route permit and Certificate of Need require public hearings and meetings.

Alternative routes may be submitted for consideration up until April 4. There are deadlines for when certain comments are accepted. Public documents pertaining to the PUC Certificate of Need and route permit processes can be found at Minutes from public meetings as well as public comments, legal documents and alternate proposed routes will be posted with the PUC. The docket number for the Certificate of need is PL-6668/CN-13-473. The Pipeline Route Permit docket number is PL-6668/PPL-13-474. Concerned citizens should keep informed on dates of public meetings and hearings before the administrative law judge estimated to occur in December. Final dates will be available through the PUC.

Travis Grimler can be reached at Follow him at and on Twitter @PEJ_Travis.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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