In Quincy, Ill. the Mississippi River is a popular place to go boating.
Just a few miles north of here, in another part of Adams County, Enbridge's new Flanagan South pipeline project has quietly been given the go-ahead to cross the nation’s busiest river.
The 36-inch diameter pipeline will initially carry 600,000 barrels per day of heavy crude oil primarily from Canada’s tar sands region in Alberta. Light crude from the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota could also flow through it.
Flanagan South will mostly parallel Enbridge’s smaller, 60-year-old Spearhead pipeline. It will stretch nearly 600 miles, from just outside of Pontiac, Ill. through Missouri and Kansas, to Cushing, Okla.
Upon completion, the two pipelines together will transport more barrels per day of Canadian heavy crude than TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Looking Forward To The Construction
Despite some local media coverage, only a few people I spoke to in Quincy knew about the project. Among them was Adams County resident Linda O’Leary, who welcomes the construction.
“I think that this is probably a good thing, and any jobs that are created are desperately needed in this area,” O’Leary said. “And I think a lot of the hype that is going on as far as, you know, bad stuff, is smoke and mirrors.”
O’Leary’s sentiment is reflected in the outpouring of political support the project has received at both the local and state level. Supporters include Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who pledged to do what he could to expedite state approval.
Adams County Board Chairman Les Post says he and his fellow board members unanimously approved the project.
“One of the biggest benefits to the county is going to be all the workers and construction crews [...] not only working in the county, but they’ll also be staying here and buying goods and services,” Post said. “So, short-term economic benefits [are] going to be tremendous just from the workers.”
But, Post admits only a few permanent jobs will ultimately result from the construction.
Opponents Say The Risk Isn't Worth It
And the project does not sit well with local environmental advocates.
Bitumen, as tar sands oil is called, is not conventional crude that can simply be pumped out of the ground. It is so thick, sticky and full of sand that energy companies did not, until recently, consider mining bitumen to be a profitable venture. But soaring oil prices have changed the economic outlook, and energy companies have responded, developing complex and expensive extraction techniques.
Henry Robertson of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center says those techniques are more damaging than those used for traditional oil.
“The stuff has to be got out of the ground somehow, and that involves super heating steam and pumping it underground to melt the bitumen,” says Robertson. “That involves an awful lot of natural gas. So you’re using one fossil fuel to get another and that increases the climate impacts.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the heavy crude oil that both the Keystone and Flanagan South pipelines will carry has a 30 percent higher greenhouse gas footprint than conventional oil.
And concerns about the pipeline projects go beyond climate change.
Kathleen Logan Smith with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment says the pipeline could destroy ecologically important habitats, and contaminate waterways and drinking water supplies.
“It wouldn’t take much to create a real problem,” said Logan Smith. “One disaster would be a long-term problem because it’s very hard to clean this stuff up.”
The Coalition wants more details regarding the route of the pipeline, spill response plans, environmental impacts and threats to endangered species.
But Logan Smith says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has refused to release the documents requested at the start of the year. So last month the Coalition sued them.
And they aren’t alone. The Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have also filed suit against the Corps over the Enbridge project.
The Corps would not comment on pending litigation but has filed a motion to delay its response until December 1.
But the Coalition’s director, Heather Navarro, believes everyone should be paying more attention to the pipeline.
“You know, everyone is focused on Keystone right now and completely unaware of the fact that this pipeline is already being built in places in this state," Navarro said.
Why Has Flanagan South Been So Quiet?
Despite similarities between the Enbridge and TransCanada projects, Flanagan South has received far less national opposition than Keystone.
This is, in part, because Enbridge is building its 5,000 miles of new and expanded pipelines in segments. Most are domestic ― like Flanagan South ― and have less stringent permitting requirements.
International pipelines like Keystone require public notification, a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and State Department approval.
But domestic pipelines like Flanagan South only require permits issued through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These permits are intended for utility projects that won’t harm the environment. As a result, they do not require an environmental impact assessment or public notification.
And as the Army Corps’ Lucius Duerksen says, the Corps’ oversight does not extend to any impacts that occur beyond the initial construction process.
“You know, our statutory authority is basically only for the discharge of dredge or fill material,” Duerksen said. “On utility lines [and] pipeline projects, that’s in the construction phase. So, yeah, it’s not long term.”
The Kalamazoo River Spill: A Troubling Precedent
This worries Adams County resident Chuck O’Leary, who is more apprehensive about potential spills than his wife Linda.
“I’d be concerned about the water quality,” O’Leary said. “I’m a water plant operator, and I know Quincy gets its water from the Mississippi. And we get our water, where I work, from the Bottoms, which is really basically from the river as well, even though it’s pumped out of the ground.”
Enbridge has faced spills before. In 2010, a pipeline ruptured in Marshall, Mich. polluting nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in the biggest inland oil spill on U.S. soil.
The 80-inch rupture gushed about 20,000 barrels of oil for more than 17 hours before a local utility worker discovered the spill and notified Enbridge. Sensors triggered 16 alarms, but Enbridge workers, believing the problem to be an air bubble, continued to pump heavy crude through the line.
Cleanup has not been easy. After the petroleum mixture spilled into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy, thick bitumen sank to the river bottom, binding to and mixing with the sediment. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated and lingered around the surrounding area for days. Area residents reported having severe headaches, dizziness and nausea.
Over $1 billion and three years of cleanup later, about 150 families have been permanently relocated, and sections of the Kalamazoo River are still closed for dredging.
Enbridge spokesperson Kevin O’Connor says that the company has been making changes to prevent further spills.
“It certainly is inexcusable,” O’Connor said. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened, but since that time we have made many adjustments to our procedures, our processes. We have a brand new control center in Edmonton. There’s an entirely new process that we use as a result of what occurred at Marshall because we certainly don’t want that to happen again.”
Construction on the Flanagan South pipeline began in mid-August, and it’s expected to be in operation by next summer.
- You can find out more about the pipeline in this story by Tina Casagrand for the St. Louis Beacon.
Follow Sarah Skiöld-Hanlin on Twitter: @Skihan