Oil pipeline safety addressed

Representatives from the Bemidji office of Enbridge, the company proposing installation of the Sandpiper oil pipeline that could go through part of the lakes area, spoke Jan. 20 to firefighters from Hackensack, Backus, Akeley, Walker and Nevis ab...

Representatives from the Bemidji office of Enbridge, the company proposing installation of the Sandpiper oil pipeline that could go through part of the lakes area, spoke Jan. 20 to firefighters from Hackensack, Backus, Akeley, Walker and Nevis about proper response to possible crude oil leaks.

Community relations consultant Jennifer Maleitzke and Bemidji area operations manager John Pechin explained the current Sandpiper proposal and introduced the Line 3 proposal to the gathered emergency responders before describing safety standards and systems.

"We have to keep the right-of-way clear of trees and other structures and what not so our crews can get in and maintain the right-of-way. The right-of-way gets flown over every couple of weeks to check for leaks and people that shouldn't be out there," Pechin said.

Signs of leaks would include discolored snow or grass in the winter, dead animals and visible leaks that could include spray or fountaining oil, flying dirt or even flames.

Pechin stressed that residents can also serve an important part in identifying problems.


"What we could use from the general public and especially first responders is if you see some activity in a given right-of-way that doesn't look right to you, give us a call," Pechin said.

Pechin explained that there are markers along pipeline corridors identifying the contents of the pipeline, the name of the company responsible for that pipeline and emergency numbers for reporting problems. Though the markers aren't necessarily directly above the pipeline they mark, they are important for identifying the pipeline's route.

In case of concerns, Enbridge also performs integrity digs along pipeline routes to check for exterior signs of danger.

Additionally, Enbridge checks for problems from within the pipelines using machines called "smart pigs" that are propelled through the pipes using the pressure of the oil flowing within to monitor for issues.

"One thing about these 'pigs' that are in the line, the smart ones that are measuring and checking for cracks, bumps and dents, we're running those all the time. Once a year each line, it seems like, gets one of those pigs along with the other not-so-smart pigs," said Samuel Sparhawk, Enbridge electrical technician.

In addition to smart pigs, there are instruments built into the pipeline and valves to monitor pressure and flow amounts that are intended to quickly identify a leak.

Furthermore, pipelines have systems to measure input and output.

"There's a couple different computer systems that will monitor the pipeline. One is kind of an inventory balance that measures what goes into the pipe and what comes out. If they don't equal it'll alarm as a leak," Pechin said.


Pechin explained that in the case of a leak Enbridge follows strict policies and protocols that are first developed using the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Included are the policies barring extinguishing flames before the pipeline supply is shut down, and the evacuation of the 1,000 feet surrounding the pipeline as well as the avoidance of any possible ignition sources, including running vehicles.

Pechin said emergency response crews should not attempt to operate valves in valve locations along the route, as the flow through pipelines can be operated remotely by trained Enbridge personnel. Emergency crews should primarily be concerned with evacuating the area and preventing entrance by anyone before the arrival of Enbridge crews properly trained in cleanup, he said.

"We have our own emergency response plan. It's kind of an all hazards plan, if you will. It covers things like earthquakes, tornadoes and pipeline releases and that sort of thing. It will be updated for this area," Pechin said. "We're responsible for the leaks. We are going to send as many people and as much stuff as needed to take care of it to get it cleaned up."

Response crews are located in Bemidji, Thief River Falls and Superior, Wis. (respectively, approximately 59.2, 151 and 134 miles from the proposed Highway 371 crossing with the proposed pipeline route). There are, however, pipeline workers living within 25 miles of shops located along Enbridge pipeline routes, some of which are being proposed for construction in Pine River, Hill City and Grand Rapids.

Pechin did not clarify if these workers would be able to respond to a leak.

"What would our job be as a fire department for an accident?" Hackensack Fire Chief Tony Peterson asked.

"Establish a perimeter," Pechin said.


In the case of a leak, Pechin pointed out that local crews are not likely trained or qualified to handle hazardous materials. According to a Jan. 16 Star Tribune story titled "Minnesota study finds more preparation needed for oil disasters," what Pechin said is true of more than half of Minnesota departments.

"This thing crosses several good waterways in just my district. There is a lot of water it goes over," said Backus Fire Chief Jason Smith. "How are we going to help you clean up the mess when it happens? We don't want to wait an hour for someone to drive from Hill City."

"Most departments don't get into hazard training needed for establishing and maintaining," Pechin said. "There are yearly training requirements so you can work with hazard training requirements. You have to get the training and equipment. Most departments don't do that. They rely on us."

Pechin said Enbridge staff does have the correct training and certification to respond to hazardous material spills, and locations in Bemidji also have emergency response trailers and boats with all equipment needed in a spill response.

Pechin estimated that response time might take one to two hours. In the meantime, firefighters and response groups are advised to keep people 1,000 feet from any leak, which could produce hydrogen sulfide gases that could cause suffocation as well as benzene, a carcinogen, and other toxins. The gases are also flammable, so all evacuations should be done on foot.

In case of a fire, firefighters are recommended to just let them burn out. Of course, fire crews are advised to make exceptions if there is a threat to life or other structures. In some cases, foam could be used to cover spills and prevent vapor releases, but there must be sufficient foam, or emergency crews could risk spreading the spill.

Smith asked about access to the pipeline route.

"Some of the difficulty is going to be how you will access some of this stuff," Smith said. "Is there going to be a driveable road when you are done for a two-wheel pickup to drive? Right now you can take the biggest, baddest mud truck you have and in July, you aren't running that route. A lot of what you are going over, the hills are steep and the water is deep. The power company does their maintenance in the winter when they can drive their machines on swamps."

"Some construction roads will be established," Pechin said. "Those are typically mat roads (temporary roads constructed on top of swamp areas)."

Sparhawk specified that mat roads are removed once they are done being used. Pechin and Sparhawk also said some permanent access roads would be constructed.

Among the most important systems for pipeline safety are the valves that are capable of shutting down flow of crude through the pipelines in sections. New maps reveal proposed shutoff valves in McKinley, Bull Moose and Crooked Lake townships along the proposed pipeline route. Pechin said those valves could be shut within 13 minutes of a leak being detected in the route.

"They have 10 minutes to recognize an issue and the valve actuators are three minute actuators, so about 13 minutes before the pipe is sectionalized," Pechin said. "They have to shut down all the pipelines in a corridor on a call. They can't restart pipelines without their management approval and without field management approval."

Pechin also introduced fire crews to a training opportunity available to all fire crews at This four-hour training results in a certification that can be used to qualify fire departments for grant money from Enbridge Safe Community grants of up to $1,500.

Certifications qualify emergency groups to an additional $250. The pipeline training does not, however, qualify local emergency groups to respond more directly in the case of a pipeline leak.

The Sandpiper is a crude oil pipeline currently being discussed by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Line 3 is a 1968 era pipeline in a congested corridor going through Bemidji, which is slated to be replaced by a newer pipeline. Enbridge is currently proposing installation of both pipelines following a route that leads from Clearbrook south to Park Rapids and then along transmission lines that eventually cross McKinley Township, Bull Moose Township, Pine River Township, Barclay Township, Blind Lake, Trelipe Township, Crooked Lake Township, Beulah Township and the top left corner of Crow Wing County on its way to Superior, Wis.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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