The Enbridge tower in downtown Edmonton. Photo via.
Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline has thousands of “crack-like features” as the company euphemism goes. In the coming months, hundreds of sections of the pipe will be dug up for inspection in Ontario and Quebec in a massive sweep of Enbridge “integrity digs.” If Enbridge deems it necessary, these stretches of pipe will be repaired or replaced. But hundreds of other pipe sections, with thousands of defects known to the company, will be left in the ground untouched. Worse still, Enbridge is guided through this process by General Electric’s experimental “smart-pig” technology, which according to their own reports has consistently underestimated the severity of cracks along Line 9 while missing hundreds of them altogether.
An Enbridge spokesperson argued to the CBC, days after their Alberta Clipper pipeline spill, that this massive Line 9 inspection operation reflects the company’s “prudent” approach to pipeline safety. While this certainly sounds reassuring, the company’s digs are only targeting the very weakest portions of the line—of which there are apparently hundreds. According to Enbridge’s engineering assessment of Line 9, for a section of pipe to be excavated it must have cracks that are at least 50% as deep as the pipeline’s surprisingly thin carbon-steel walls—most of the pipe is 6.35mm thick.
“Frankly, with the number of integrity digs going on, landowners are wondering how poor the condition of Line 9 actually is,” John Goudy told the National Energy Board in a speech given on behalf of the Ontario Pipeline Landowners Association.
Enbridge searches for “crack-like” or “notch-like” features, “crack-field” clusters, “dents,” and “metal loss” in their pipeline walls. In the nearly decade old data that Enbridge presented to the NEB, the company found a total of 12,961 features along Line 9—including “4,738 crack related features” and “8,223 metal loss features.” Many of these have since been repaired, but the majority of them, the company has determined, “do not pose an immediate threat to the integrity of the pipeline” and therefore will not be fixed ahead of the pipeline’s reversal.
Considering Enbridge’s operating record—an average of over 73 spills per year—it’s difficult to be blasé about this. Similar defects were found throughout Enbridge’s Line 6B, the nearly identical pipeline that ruptured in 2010 in Michigan and still hasn’t been cleaned up. The 2010 rupture could have been avoided, a US federal agency found, because “Enbridge knew for years that this section of the pipeline was vulnerable yet they didn’t act on that information.” Enbridge discovered the Kalamazoo crack in 2005, but underestimated its impact—they assessed it using the same experimental technology that they are using to monitor Line 9.
The company’s tool of choice is GE’s previously mentioned “smart-pig” or inline inspection technology, which pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz wrote is “a new, still developing technological approach that has yet to be sufficiently field demonstrated to be highly accurate or reliable.” The “pig” travels through the pipeline, mapping out its features with ultrasound or electromagnetic sensors and reporting which areas of the pipeline are structurally compromised.
So far, in Line 9, smart-pigs have had a dismal record of finding and assessing cracks. The company has found many defects within the pipe that are visible to the human eye but were missed by these “state-of-the-art inspection tools.” According to Enbridge’s own assessment, between 12% and 26% of all defects found on excavated pieces of Line 9 were unreported by their smart-pigs. Cracks that are smaller than 1mm x 60mm cannot be detected by this tool at all, though many cracks that are larger than this threshold have evaded Enbridge’s detection too. Those cracks that were detected were usually underestimated by the tool. Additionally, Enbridge told the Ontario Pipeline Landowners Association that “there are no ILI tools available that can accurately detect pinhole corrosion,” even though this type of defect has historically lead to large spills.
With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that when Enbridge digs for defects they often find leaks or spills. This was the experience of one landowner who discovered through an Enbridge dig that their farm was contaminated with toxins like toluene and naphthalene. They wrote to the NEB that “this contamination now explains why, in 2007, my cows aborted their calves and I had to sell all my herd. They had all pastured and drank water from areas where the contamination was found.”
Line 9’s maintenance digs were not part of the Line 9 reversal hearings, an exclusion which John Goudy of the Ontario Pipeline Landowners Association argued allows Enbridge to downplay the scale of their proposed reversal project and its immediate environmental impact. Though Enbridge publicizes that these digs take between two days and two weeks, and barely disturb the land, multiple letters delivered by Goudy to the NEB told a very different story. Landowners wrote that their properties were transformed into construction sites and rendered unusable for months or even years. Their businesses suffered and construction began without their knowledge or permission. “There seems to be a constant turnover of Enbridge’s personnel. So it’s like constantly having strangers on your property, which is unsettling and intrusive,” one landowner complained.
When some landowners learned from an integrity dig that their land was poisoned, Enbridge blamed the contamination on pesticide use and other pipeline spills along the right of way—even though no pesticides were used in that area and no spills were ever reported. Their neighbours, whose land was also contaminated, “notified the Ontario Spills Action Centre… who in turn notified the NEB, who had not been notified of anything.” Ultimately, these landowners found themselves arguing for months with Enbridge and TransNorthern, with each corporation refusing to take responsibility for the leaked toxins. They hired a lawyer and now the three parties have agreed on a clean-up plan—but the letter concludes by saying, “the contamination has significantly devalued our properties… we are held liable for contamination left behind by multi-million dollar companies beyond reproach, obviously even from the NEB.”
The presence of this contamination attests to the limited capabilities of Enbridge’s monitoring technology. But according to Richard Kuprewicz, the smart-pig method suffers from a slew of other problems as well. It “does not accurately measure pipe wall thickness” and does not account for different forms of wear-and-tear combining at one site—a problem that is prevalent along Line 9 and according to him constitutes its greatest threat. If a crack occurs along a part of the pipeline where the wall is worn thin, no additional red flags are raised; it is simply treated as a crack.
Kuprewicz also warned that human error is not uncommon in interpreting the test results. He argues that Enbridge has dramatically underestimated the rate at which cracks grow in their line and that “changing crude slates, especially [tar sands] dilbit, will substantially increase crack growth rates.” But to Kuprewicz, not all of this is Enbridge’s fault—there are no clear federal guidelines telling companies how quickly they need to address their cracks. This too should raise some alarms, seeing as after the Kalamazoo rupture the US National Transportation Safety Board warned that weak regulations contributed to the spill and that “for the regulator to delegate too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks is tantamount to the fox guarding the hen house.”
A number of conclusions can be drawn from all of this, but none more important than those Kuprewicz offered to the NEB. He warned that Enbridge’s assessment of Line 9 shows that they have “failed to heed some important” lessons from the Kalamazoo rupture. “The crack in the Marshall, MI pipeline used the same ILI tool technology, the same biased software algorithm, underrepresenting [stress corrosion colony] depths,” he wrote. Enbridge has not shown that their approach to maintenance is cautious enough that the “massive and pervasive [stress corrosion cracking] threats on Line 9 can be remediated before they reach rupture limits.” In other words, Enbridge’s over-dependence on smart-pig technology, and their disinterest in considering other options, means that “there is a high risk the pipeline will rupture in the early years following the Project’s implementation.”
Kuprewicz came to these conclusions by reading the same engineering assessment that Enbridge submitted to the National Energy Board and that I have referenced throughout this article—it is the only such report on Line 9 that the NEB will look at. What remains to be seen is which interpretation they believe. The final ruling on Line 9 is expected within weeks. Enbridge did not respond to VICE's questions about the state of Line 9 in time for publication.