How safe is Idaho’s pipeline network?

    Late on the evening of July 1, 2011, ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipeline, buried just below the Yellowstone River, ruptured and spilled at least 42,000 gallons of oil into the Montana river. Indications pointed to river flooding as a likely contributing factor. Billings Gazette photo.

    Editors note: In May 2012 Idaho Outdoor Journal published an article about pipeline safety in Idaho. The January 17, 2015 oil spill in the Yellowstone River above Glendive, Mont, released more than 50,000 gallons of oil into the river. With this disaster still in the news, IOJ is reprinting its pipeline safety article in its entirety. Two oil safety sidebars will follow.

    by Mike McLaskey and IOJ staff

    BOISE — There is a vast and little-know network of natural gas and petroleum pipelines that runs throughout the country.

    Over two million miles of pipeline carry crude oil and natural gas 24 hours a day, seven days a week all over the country and Idaho has 70,000 miles in that network.

    Regulation and upkeep of these pipelines is in the hands of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), a sub-agency of the Department of Transportation.

    A pipeline pig is an internal monitoring device that flows  from point to point with the petroleum inspecting the pipelines for weakness or leaks. Avista Photo
    A pipeline pig is an internal monitoring device that flows through a pipeline from point to point with the petroleum, inspecting it for weakness or leaks. Avista Photo

    According to PHMSA, “the nation’s pipelines are a transportation system,” and this complex network “delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of ton/miles (a unit of freight transportation equivalent to a ton of freight moved one mile) of liquid petroleum products each year.”

    This network is essential as the country’s vast size makes any other means of distributing these energy resources cost-prohibitive.

    PHMSA indicated that natural gas accounts for 25 percent of our nation’s energy usage, and oil accounts for 60 percent, so between the two, the nation’s pipelines provide for a significant portion of our country’s energy needs.

    Crews working to clean up crude oil that spilled in and near the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana and prevent it from traveling further downstream were hampered by ice covering much of the river, of
    Crews working to clean up crude oil that spilled in and near the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana and prevent it from traveling further downstream were, hampered by ice covering much of the river.

    The lion’s share of pipeline is natural gas distribution for heating needs. Petroleum pipelines are another story. They may be fewer in number, but when a petroleum pipeline fails, the potential impact is huge, especially when waterways are involved.

    Natural gas lines can be dangerous as well; an MSNBC story from 2010 stated that thousands of pipes in this country are aging, and old steel gas lines laid around the 1950s are in need of replacement or repair.

    The report also stated, “Federal officials have recorded 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents since 1990—more than a third causing deaths and significant injuries.”

    Protecting rivers

    In 2011, historic water levels across the West was thought to be the cause of the failure of the Yellowstone Pipeline near Laurel, Montana. Exxon-Mobil settled with the state for $1.54 m for costs related to the estimated spilling of 1,500 barrels of oil.

    Avista workers prepare a pig in a pipe for an inspection or maintenance journey. Avista photo.
    Avista workers prepare a pig in a pipe for an inspection or maintenance journey. Avista photo.

    Officials with Exxon-Mobil initially stated that the spill should only affect the Yellowstone River ten miles downstream. A map created by the State of Montana’s Disaster & Emergency Services Division shows that the spill impacted seven counties east of the spill site to the North Dakota border. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer believes that it may have made it into North Dakota as well, but there is no corroborating data.

    The year before, perhaps as many as a million barrels of oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River after a 30-inch pipeline failed near Marshall, Michigan. There are 42 gallons of oil in one barrel

    According to the EPA’s factsheet on the spill, as of Feb. 2012, over one million gallons of oil has been collected as part of cleanup efforts, and has cost $36.7 million. Cleanup is still ongoing and investigators still do not know the cause of the failure.

    Closer to home

    While Idaho has luckily not had any failures of this magnitude in its pipeline network, there have been some scares. In July 2011 a petroleum pipeline crossing the Coeur d’Alene River registered a pressure drop. Fearing a blowout, the most common cause of a pressure drop, operator Conoco-Phillips stopped the line and investigated. They found nothing wrong and continued operation.

    A tourist takes pictures of the Coeur d'Alene River from a dock near the Cataldo Mission in Cataldo, Idaho as a boom stretches across the water's surface. The barrier was put in place after a drop in pressure was detected for an oil pipeline that traverses the area. (AP Photo/Coeur d'Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)
    A tourist takes pictures of the Coeur d’Alene River from a dock as a boom stretches across the water’s surface. The barrier was put in place after a drop in pressure was detected for an oil pipeline in the area. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

    On December 30, HAZMAT crews were dispatched to the Clearwater River near Orofino for what was reported as a rainbow-type sheen on the river’s surface. Officials with the EPA were unsure of it’s source, but tests for leaks in the area were conducted.

    Preliminary results have shown that the sheen is composed mostly of gasoline. Greg Weigel is On-Scene Coordinator for the EPA’s Region 10 Idaho Operations in Boise and is the coordinator for this investigation.

    He stated that since the EPA is unsure of the point source of the sheen, the next step is to dig monitoring wells around the site to see if they can find the source in the groundwater and determine the direction of its flow.

    A necessary network

    There’s no question of the need for these pipelines but the question is how safe are they, particularly the older ones. Pipelines are key infrastructure, and in the security-minded environment of the post-September 11 world, information on the pipelines is handled on a need-to-know basis.

    Questions such as how many times do these pipelines cross waterways in Idaho, and how often are they inspected were just two questions raised by recent pipeline incidents. According to PHMSA, there are 10 pipeline operators in the state.

    While PHMSA was forthcoming with the number of operators and miles of pipeline, they did not readily provide answers to questions on waterway pipeline crossings. Nor were the pipeline operators entirely forthcoming when asked; they referred to the PHMSA for this information. In the end, PHMSA said they would not provide this requested information without filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

    So a FOIA request was filed. After more than a month, the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration responded to the request for information.

    As expected, natural gas transmission line crossings outnumber petroleum pipeline crossings. Natural gas pipelines cross waterways 150 times in this state, and petroleum pipelines cross waterways 79 times.

    Most of the states’ pipeline operators have had inspections since mid-2010, but others, such as Conoco-Phillips, whose pipeline in Idaho eventually connects with the Yellowstone Pipeline in Montana, have not been inspected since August 2008. Likewise, the Northwest Pipeline Corp, which operates natural gas pipelines, has not been inspected since 2008 in the Boise district and 2009 in the Pocatello district.

    So while we know how many there are and the last time they were inspected, does that answer the question “how safe are they?”

    To inspect and protect

    Jeff Lee is a cathode protection technician for Avista Corp. based in Lewiston, Idaho. He said that there are two primary techniques that are used to monitor and ensure the quality of pipes being used to move natural gas and petroleum products through Idaho’s vast pipeline system.

    A pipeline pigs is a device of varying sizes placed into a petroleum or natural gas pipeline that cleans or inspects. Avista photo.
    A pipeline pig is the workhorse of the pipeline safety efforts made by oil companies. Avista photo.

    One uses electric current to protect pipelines and keep them from deteriorating to the point that would lead to a weak pipeline wall and potential trouble.

    Lee monitors pipelines in Idaho from Bonners Ferry to Lewiston and he logs hundreds of miles a month traveling the line.

    The second system uses what is called a pipe pig that is a device that actually is placed inside the pipe at designated locations where access is available. The pig is the same diameter as the pipe and travels the length of the pipe, be it two or twenty miles, and inspects the condition of the pipe as it moves from point A to point B inside the actual pipeline system.

    These two primary system are the primary protection system that Avista uses to monitor and maintain its pipeline in North Idaho.

    Predicting the unpredictable

    Again this year, Idaho has seen historic snowpack and run-off. If those conditions were all that was required to cause the Yellowstone Pipeline to breach, what are the dangers to Idaho pipelines?

    In January 2012 federal inspection officials still do not know what caused the Yellowstone rupture, although their best guess is that the increased runoff exposed the buried pipeline to debris, which in turn caused the spill.

    Most of the pipelines in this state were laid before there were laws overseeing pipeline safety. Are these pipes buried deep enough at river crossings to prevent a disaster like the Yellowstone incident?

    Romelia Hinojosa is a spokesperson for Conoco-Phillips, who operates 80 miles of hazardous petroleum pipeline crossing through the northernmost tip of Idaho. She said, “We take a number of precautions when laying and operating pipelines near a body of water. We may use thicker-walled pipe, special coatings, apply weights and varying depth of cover.”

    “Aside from testing, we also visually inspect all water crossings on a regular basis, especially if we know that there has been increased runoff or rainfall,” Hinojosa said. “In addition to these regular inspections we fly the pipeline right-of-ways every week,” she said.

    Hinojosa also said that PHMSA requires them to inspect their pipelines once every five years, “but sometimes we inspect them more often depending on our inspection results and operational data.”

    In the wake of the Yellowstone Pipeline failure, federal inspectors investigating the incident indicated that more inspections were needed on pipelines all across the West. It is unclear at this juncture whether PHMSA has more inspections planned.

    These pipelines are important to our economy and national security. The big question is, considering the age of the system, are all necessary steps being taken by PHMSA and pipeline operators, in terms of inspections and upgrades to avoid future problems.

    Tomorrow: Corrosion is a major problem, and a pig in a pipe protects.