March 31, 2013

Pipeline company points to record of safety in tar-sands oil debate

Officials with the Portland-to-Montreal line offer a closer look at their protocols to try to alleviate opponents' fears about environmental risks.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

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Unloading arms remove oil for storage from the oil tanker HS Electra at Portland Pipe Line’s pier facility in South Portland.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The headline in Life magazine from July 21, 1941, captured the importance of a construction project that was moving at lightning speed across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. “New Pipeline is Rushed to Help Meet the East’s Threatened Oil Shortage.”

Britain was under attack from Nazi Germany. The United States was poised to join the war and was helping its ally. Oil was needed overseas, and the U.S. was diverting 50 tankers a day from the southwest, with crude normally refined for the East Coast and eastern Canada.

Complicating the problem was the fact that refineries in Montreal couldn’t receive crude in the winter, when the St. Lawrence River iced over.

The solution was a 236-mile pipeline from Portland. It could operate year round and cut off a 2,000-mile round trip by water to Montreal.

Work began when the snow melted. Crews assembled in Gorham, N.H. One raced east toward Portland; the other headed west to Montreal. They worked 12-hour days, seven days a week.

The pace is documented in the 1941 film “The Story of the Portland to Montreal Pipeline.” It documents how the section from Gorham, N.H., to Montreal was built at “emergency speed,” with diesel bulldozers clearing a right-of-way through two miles of forest a day, followed by trenching and pipe-laying crews.

On Aug. 1, 1941, oil executives and government officials assembled on the U.S.-Canadian border at Highwater, Quebec, for a ceremony to connect the pipe. On Nov. 4, 1941, a tanker of crude oil from South America docked at the new pipeline pier in South Portland, a month ahead of schedule.

This original, 12-inch-diameter pipeline was taken out of service in 1982. Two larger pipes were later installed – an 18-inch pipe in 1950, and a 24-inch pipe in 1965.

– Staff Writer Tux Turkel

These activities help show how pipeline companies limit the risk of a spill, although the strategies aren't foolproof. The draft of a recent study done for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found that control room operators identified leaks in hazardous liquid lines only 17 percent of the time. It concluded that air patrols and ground crews inspecting the lines were more likely to find problems.

The industry, represented by the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Pipe Lines, has responded that the study's contractor relied on academic discussions and technology vendors, without using real-world data. The industry says it's planning new research on advanced, in-line inspection and crack detection tools.

But the Enbridge disaster has highlighted that it takes more than new technology to detect and react to leaks. Federal investigators concluded last year that the failure of control room operators in Alberta to correctly respond to repeated leak alarms reflected a "culture of deviance" about following company procedures.

In South Portland, the company's training and operating procedures contain the expectation that controllers will shut down if they even suspect that something abnormal is taking place, according to Tom Hardison, director of operations and maintenance.

"The important thing is to shut down first, and determine what you have from there," he said. "Controllers don't have to ask anyone for permission to do that."

The HS Elektra, a 802-foot crude oil tanker, was docked at the marine terminal's north pier. The tanker had arrived on the morning high tide, March 9, with roughly 700,000 barrels of crude oil from the North Sea. Fourteen hours later, the ship would be empty.


The pipeline is designed to handle oil from all over the world, but not every load is accepted. Crude that's not on a list approved by the company must be nominated by shippers and meet strict criteria for properties that include viscosity, vapor pressure, sediment and chemical elements, such as sulfur.

Even then, the oil doesn't go straight into the pipeline. It's stored among the 23 tanks at the South Portland tank farm and sampled in a lab. No load, for instance, can contain more than 1 percent sediment.

"Anything that's accepted into our system has to meet these criteria," Hardison said. Critics say the abrasive sediment in heavy, tar-sands oil is tough on pipe walls, putting them at a greater risk of failure. But Hardison said the company would never subject its multi-million-dollar pumps to a destructive load, any more than someone would pour sand into their car's engine oil.

It's inevitable, though, that some sediment and mineral deposits will settle in a crude oil pipeline, where they can contribute to corrosion. To clean its line, the company relies on a "pig." A pig is a term for a cylindrical tool nearly the diameter of a pipeline. Early models made of straw and wire apparently made a piglike, squealing noise.

Every three months, a brush pig is stuffed into a pipeline in South Portland to ride underground on a stream of pressurized oil to Montreal.

The pig used at the Portland-Montreal pipeline weighs 100 pounds. It is tipped with plastic cleaning cups that scoop out water and sediment. A plastic drive cup seals the pig inside the pipeline to allow oil pressure to propel it along, while spring-loaded, metal brushes scrape and clean the walls.

Earlier this month, three workers set up a pigging operation to clean the company's 24-inch-diameter, coated steel line. They lifted the brush pig into an elbow off the main pipeline, called the scraper launching trap. Then they used a ramrodlike metal pole to stuff the pig into the mainline, and resealed the pipe. Oil introduced behind the pig sent it on its way.

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Additional Photos

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The tanker HS Elektra unloads its cargo of oil from the North Sea at The Portland Pipe Line operation in South Portland earlier this month.

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Tom Hardison, operations director for Portland Pipe Line Corp., says not every load of oil delivered to the company is accepted for transmission.

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Peter Fickett, a controller at Portland Pipe Line, monitors aspects of the oil flow between South Portland and Montreal during his 12-hour shift in the company’s control room.

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Pipeline workers prepare the scraper-launching trap in mid-March before their brush “pig” device was to begin its two-and-a-half-day trip to Montreal to clean the 24-inch-diameter pipe.

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Workers in 1941 use cranes called boom cats to lower sections of the Portland-Montreal pipeline into the ground in Vermont. Crews moved at “emergency speed” to meet wartime oil transportation needs.

Courtesy Northeast Historic Film


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