Few Pipeline Plans Account for River Risks

By MATTHEW BROWN | February 10, 2012

Federal officials investigating a pipeline break that spilled 1,500 barrels of oil into a Montana river said Wednesday that few companies take river erosion and other risks into account when evaluating pipeline safety.

In recent months, several companies have completed or made plans for significant upgrades to pipelines across major waterways in Montana and adjoining parts of Wyoming and Idaho.

Among those were an estimated $20 million in improvements to Exxon’s 12-inch Silvertip line, which broke July 1 during flooding on the Yellowstone River, fouling an estimated 70 miles of shoreline.

But more needs to be done, said Chris Hoidal, western region director for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.

“Things are a lot better than they were six months ago. There’s still a long way to go,” Hoidal said Wednesday during a meeting of Montana’s Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council.

Council chairman and Department of Environmental Quality director Richard Opper said the work done to date addressed the most vulnerable pipeline crossings that were identified by inspectors last fall.

Yet thousands of pipelines that cross small or intermittent streams remain a concern, he said – adding that inspections of those lesser crossings generally are left up to the companies that operate them.

“PHMSA doesn’t have the staff to inspect thousands of crossings in Montana alone, not to mention all the other states they have to oversee,” Opper said. He said those crossings “are not quite as vulnerable to the really big flows on the bigger rivers, but they’re still a concern.”

Montana has 6,700 miles of natural gas transmission, oil and other hazardous liquid pipelines and another 6,683 miles of smaller distribution lines that connect to service lines for homes and businesses. The state averages about six or seven serious accidents on those lines annually.

The Exxon Mobil spill near Laurel caused more property damage than all other accidents over the last decade combined. Investigators suspect river scouring caused by flooding on the Yellowstone was responsible. The line was buried only a few feet beneath the riverbed when it was installed in 1991.

The spill allowed crude to gush into the river for almost an hour. In addition to its recent upgrades to the line, Exxon is spending an estimated $115 million to clean up parts of the river and adjacent lands that suffered crude contamination following by the spill.

To prevent future accidents, Hoidal’s agency said companies need to better evaluate risks from flooding rivers, soil subsidence and other changes to the landscape through which pipelines pass. To account for those changes, companies can take steps such as rerouting pipelines, drilling them more deeply or adding automatic valves so they can quickly be shut down.

There are 82 points at which oil and other hazardous liquid pipelines cross major rivers in Montana and portions of adjoining states. Inspections in the wake of the Yellowstone spill found exposed sections of pipe or other problems at eight of those major crossings and many smaller river and stream crossings.

Work on some of those crossings has since been completed or is underway by companies including ConocoPhillips, CHS and Exxon Mobil, Hoidal said Wednesday. That work is expected to continue

The pending investigation into Exxon’s Silvertip spill originally was expected to be completed within two months. It has dragged on in part due to the involvement of the federal Department of Justice and state agencies, which are still working out protocols to test the damaged section of pipeline to see what caused it to fail.

Opper said that analysis could be completed by the end of the month.

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