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Spills and Leaks

The unsavory impacts of the tar sands are not limited to northern Alberta. Rapid tar sands expansion is creating a growing network of pipelines and oil tankers that make rivers, coastlines and communities all over North America vulnerable to the devastating impacts of tar sands oil leaks and spills.

The most recent spills in Marshall, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas show tar sands pipelines leak a kind of oil that is much more toxic and difficult to clean up than conventional crude, and a massive spill from an oil tanker loaded with tar sands crude would devastate fisheries, communities and economies along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

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Tar sands expansion is pushing a web of dangerous infrastucture in every direction
Key Issues:
- Tar sands oil is more corrosive and transported at higher pressures
- Spills of tar sands crude are significantly more toxic and harder to clean up
- A single tanker accident would cause billions in damage
Current Status:
Alberta has seen 28,666 crude oil spills since 1975, an average of 2 per day

The problem, for the oil industry, is one of geography: The tar sands are landlocked far from the nearest port or harbor. To get tar sands crude to market, the oil industry is building or repurposing a growing web of pipelines to every imaginable coast, where oil tankers bigger than the Exxon Valdez will ferry their dirty cargo through some of the most dangerous waters on the planet and on to markets in Europe and Asia.

The risks posed by transporting tar sands oil are enormous. We already know that pipelines transporting Alberta’s dirty tar sands crude to refineries in Central Canada, New England, the U.S. Midwest, and the Gulf Coast are more prone to leak than those carrying conventional crude oil. Midwestern pipelines, which have the longest history of transporting tar sands oil, and pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan spilled almost three times as much crude oil per mile of pipeline compared to the U.S. national average.

Why? Because tar sands crude is more acidic, more corrosive, and more viscous than conventional crude, and must be pumped at higher pressures than normal oil. As it travels through the pipeline, higher temperatures amplify the corrosive qualities of this acidic oil, which carries abrasive materials such as quartz and silicates. In other words, tar sands oil flows through pipelines like hot, toxic liquid sandpaper, and eventually overwhelms the pipe to gush into rivers and city streets.

When tar sands pipelines rupture, the damage is more severe than spills of conventional oil. The natural gas condensate used to thin tar sands oil increases the chance of explosions, and the toxins that are present in the oil, such as benzene and n-hexane, can affect the human central nervous system. Tar sands spills can be especially destructive to bodies of water, where protracted and costly cleanup efforts are required. If a diluted bitumen spill occurs by a river, pond, lake, bay, or sea, the condensate evaporates, leaving the heavier bitumen to sink. This means that cleanup efforts not only require booms to skim spilled oil from the water’s surface, but also dredges to recover sunken bitumen, potentially agitating toxic sediments that have already settled on the bottom.

A recent tar sands spill in southern Michigan shows just how devastating a diluted bitumen spill can be. In the summer of 2010, one million gallons of tar sands oil gushed from an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Michigan. The oil contaminated a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, which required unprecedented clean-up efforts that cost upwards of $1 billion. It also led to widespread health problems in neighboring communities. The same scenario is playing out in Mayflower, Arkansas, where Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline ruptured in April 2013, spilling 300,000 gallons of tar sands crude into suburban streets, residential yards, wetlands, waterways, and Lake Conway. Residents are worried about long-term health impacts, and long-term environmental impacts and clean-up costs are still unknown.

These pipelines are all headed to coastal harbors near you, where tar sands crude can be loaded onto oil tankers plying dangerous coastal waters on their way to Asia and Europe. If these pipelines are built, and tanker traffic increases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, there will almost certainly be a major oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez spill that devastated southeastern Alaska. Such a spill would be almost impossible to clean-up, damaging coastal ecosystems, communities and economies in much the same way BP's massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico did.

The likelihood and severity of these risks are simply too great. If the tar sands industry’s plans to double or even triple production over the coming decades, the number of pipeline leaks and oil tanker spills will increase exponentially. It's simply not worth it.

Spills and Leaks Updates & Resources

Oilsands pipeline projects look doomed after Nexen oil spill leaves two football fields of black goo


Rebecca Penty and Robert Tuttle | Bloomberg News - July 28th 2015

Press Clipping: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get oilsands pipeline projects off the ground, and Alberta’s worst spill since 1980 will probably make it tougher. A rupture in a line operated by Nexen, a unit of China’s Cnooc Ltd., spewed 31,500 barrels of bitumen, waste water and sand into the bog-like muskeg of the province’s north this month, igniting outrage from communities along pipeline routes.



July 28th 2015

Press Clipping: On Sunday, July 25, 2010, an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured and spilled more than one million gallons of toxic tar sands into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It was the largest oil spill ever on U.S. soil. Five years and $1.2 billion later, the river is still polluted, and the community is still suffering the impacts of the spill. On the five year anniversary, hundreds of community members and activists from all over the region gathered to commemorate the Kalamazoo River tar sands disaster and organize to stop history from repeating itself in other communities.

Advocates honor anniversary of Kalamazoo tar sands disaster, work to prevent future spills


Editors | Tar Sands Solutions - July 25th 2015

Blog Post: This weekend, activists converged along the Kalamazoo River to commemorate the catastrophic tar sands spill that occurred here five years ago, when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and spilled over a million gallons of toxic tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in the biggest on-shore spill in U.S. history. This weekend’s events, which included a “Healing Walk” along the river, as well as workshops and speeches from members of the community affected by the spill, were attended by hundreds of people from across the region.

Five-year anniversary of Kalamazoo spill reminds us of the dangers of tar sands crude


Jennifer Skene | NRDC - July 25th 2015

Blog Post: On July 25, 2010, an estimated 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled from an Enbridge-owned pipeline into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Calhoun County, Michigan. On the fifth anniversary of this tragedy, communities and activists are coming together at a "Remember Kalamazoo" event in Battle Creek, Michigan, to stand in solidarity with those harmed by the spill and to take a stand against the expansion of tar sands into other communities.

Ewart: Latest pipeline spill provides more fuel for industry’s critics


Stephen Ewart | Calgary Herald - July 24th 2015

Press Clipping: Calgary Herald columnist Stephen Ewart: "Even as Notley gets a lesson in the political realities of getting her fellow premiers onside for any new pipelines from the oilsands at the Council of the Federation in St. John’s, N.L., she also got a reminder of the importance of pipeline concerns back home. It’s a mess on both fronts and — on seemingly every level — it will take a lot of hard work to clean up."

Enbridge expects $40 million fine, EPA’s stiffest ever for a pipeline spill

David Hasemeyer | InsideClimate News - July 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: The Environmental Protection Agency may penalize Enbridge Inc. with the stiffest fine ever imposed under the Clean Water Act for an oil pipeline disaster, based on an InsideClimate News review of EPA enforcement data covering the past 15 years. Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline operator, expects a $40 million penalty for spilling 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River five years ago, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under federal law, the EPA could levy $100 million or more.

Failure of “failsafe” leak detection system a reminder that tar sands pipelines are never safe


Editors | Tar Sands Solutions - July 22nd 2015

Blog Post: Last week, a tar sands pipeline ruptured in Alberta, Canada, spilling thirty-one thousand barrels of tar sands oil, sand, and wastewater, covering about two football fields’ worth of land in one of the largest on-shore oil spills in North American history. The Nexen pipeline that ruptured was only a year old and was equipped with a “failsafe system” designed to monitor the pipeline and detect any leaks. Unfortunately, in this case as in many others, the so-called “failsafe system” failed to live up to its name, and the spill was already well underway before it was detected.

Nexen pipeline spill near Fort McMurray one of the largest in Alberta’s history

CTV | Calgary Staff - July 21st 2015

Press Clipping: A Nexen pipeline has failed, spilling millions of litres of bitumen, produced water and sand at its Long Lake project about 35 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray. The spill is considered one of the largest oil sands spills in Canada in recent memory, as five million litres has spewed, enough to fill two Olympic sized swimming pools.