The Portland Pipe Line Corp. has delivered more than 5 billion barrels, or 210 billion gallons, of crude oil to Montreal over the past 72 years without a major spill.
A review of state and federal records, as well as news reports from before the era of environmental regulation, indicate that the company hasn’t suffered a damaging spill since 1960, when a pipe break in Waterford sent 42,000 gallons into a small brook. Since the advent of modern regulations, the largest spill recorded by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was 2,500 gallons in 1987. That spill took place at the terminal, not on the pipeline.
Records from the DEP, and from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, show only two notable spills along the pipeline: 504 gallons of crude in 2003 and 180 gallons of diesel fuel in 2010.
The company points to this record, and several safety and environmental awards it has received from the U.S. Coast Guard and industry trade groups, as proof of its responsible management and operating abilities. The company also gets good marks from the Maine DEP, and some first responders along the pipeline’s path from Portland Harbor through western Maine.
But recent high-profile spills elsewhere, including an Exxon-Mobil breach that fouled the Yellowstone River in Montana, and the Enbridge Corp. mishap that leaked 843,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, raise questions about the safety of the nation’s system of petroleum pipelines and about the agencies charged with regulating them.
In Maine, public debate is focused on the prospect that the Portland-Montreal pipeline could reverse its flow to move the heavy crude from western Canada to Portland Harbor. Environmental groups say the properties of what they call tar-sands oil increase the risk of pipeline damage. The pipeline company says the oil, which the industry calls diluted bitumen, is no different than the heavy crude it has safely moved for decades. The issue is being studied by the National Academy of Sciences, and a report on diluted bitumen is due in July.
The Maine DEP has spill data for the Portland-Montreal pipeline dating back to 1978. It records the smallest reported incidents, even spills of less than a gallon. More than 110 incidents are noted, and nearly all are at the terminal, including a 2,000-gallon spill of crude in 2001. Besides that spill and the bigger one in 1987, only a handful of incidents involve more than 50 gallons.
“From the DEP’s perspective, Portland Pipe Line has an impressive safety and environmental record,” said Samantha DePoy-Warren, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Warren called the company “an important partner” in spill prevention in Portland Harbor, one of the largest oil terminals on the East Coast.
Local and regional responders say they think the company does a good job with spill preparedness.
In Casco, firefighters train annually and attend regional forums put on by the company. The department stores boom kits and other tools to contain a spill until the DEP shows up, although Jason Moen, the town’s fire chief, said they haven’t scheduled an actual drill in the field.
A pipeline accident would activate regional hazardous materials units, including those set up at larger fire departments in Cumberland County. The company reviews its operations and resources a couple of times a year with these responders, according to Ann-Marie Brett, deputy director at the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency. She said they have “a good working relationship.”
Regulating interstate pipelines is the responsibility of the federal pipeline agency. PHMSA has been criticized in recent years for not having enough inspectors to monitor the nation’s vast and aging pipeline system, and leaving too much oversight to the industry.
Regarding the Portland pipeline, the federal agency has conducted two site-specific inspections, two system-wide inspections and six targeted inspections since 2006. It initiated and resolved five enforcement cases during the period, records show.
The issues raised seem relatively minor. For instance: PHMSA wasn’t happy with the way the company was documenting its Liquid Integrity Management program, a federal rule which details how operators must identify and validate the condition of their pipelines. The agency also said the company’s management program was inadequate because its procedures failed to include methods that measure effectiveness.
Damon Hill, a spokesman for PHMSA, said these deficiencies were based on reviewing written documents, not a field inspection.
Larry Wilson, the pipeline company’s president, said the document was a result of a periodic and routine inspection of the management program, and was not related to spill prevention. After the pipeline company provided additional details about the program, the case was closed.
Environmental activists, however, put little faith in these reviews, which they see as superficial.
“It would be foolhardy for the citizens of Maine to put a lot of trust in PHMSA to ensure actual pipeline safety and prevent a spill,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “They just aren’t set up to do that. When the dangers of a spill grow as a result of tar sands, it becomes imperative that there be a fresh environmental review before any project goes forward.”
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or