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April 18, 2012

Tar Sands Pipelines Through America -- New England Next?

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Two years after a disastrous tar sands oil spill, warning signs and hazard tape still quarantine a forty-mile spread of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. The cleanup has cost over $700 million and new deposits of sunken tar sands oil are still being discovered. Local families have left their homes for good.

Thousands of miles away in Billings, Montana, local ranchers are still testing their soil after the July 2011 tar sands oil spill into the previously pristine Yellowstone River.  Hundreds of contractors and volunteers working through summer and into fall recovered less than one percent of the tar sands oil that spilled from a nearby pipeline; authorities are waiting for spring floods to reveal where some of it lies. National Geographic had called it "America's last best river."

No wonder New Englanders are nervous about the prospect of tar sands oil pumping through their lands in a pipeline built in 1950. In the last six months, pipeline executives have been talking about reversing the 18-inch Portland-Montreal Pipeline (PMPL) to carry tar sands oil from Canada through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, bound for export through Portland's international shipping port.  This tar sands project would jeopardize much of New England's prize wild places and waterways, and would have serious carbon pollution impacts.

Tar sands oil is among the most corrosive and environmentally destructive forms of oil ever to flow through America's aging pipeline system. Tar sands are a mix of bitumen -- a sludge that's solid at room temperature -- and condensate -- an ultra light but extremely unstable byproduct of natural gas production. This mixture explains why, when the pipeline in Kalamazoo ruptured, some of the tar sands oil vaporized into an airborne health hazard for emergency responders and nearby families, while the rest sank into the river bottom because, unlike conventional crude, tar sands oil is denser than water.

This density makes tar sands oil extremely difficult to recover once it spills, and requires it to be pumped at high temperatures that facilitate corrosion and high pressures that make it more volatile. Tar sands are also far more acidic than conventional oil, and full of sediments and quartz particles that wear down pipelines. Tar sands are so damaging to pipelines that even the brand new Keystone I pipeline -- designed specifically to tame toxic tar sands oil -- leaked over 12 times in its first 12 months. 

If the Portland-Montreal Pipeline carries tar sands oil, it will endanger the immediate and long-term health of every waterway it encounters. In Vermont it cuts through Victory State Park and the nearby Victory Basin Wilderness Management Area, one of Vermont's most celebrated wild places. It's a wetland and forest environment that depends on the purity of its water to sustain its renowned diversity of wildlife, from bobcats and fishers to minks, otters and snapping turtles.

As the PMPL travels through New Hampshire, it runs along the northern edge of White Mountain National Park where it parallels the Androscoggin River for over 15 miles between Gorham, New Hampshire and Bethel, Maine. The Androscoggin was once so polluted by textile industries that it helped inspire the Clean Water Act. Decades of cleanup have restored much of the river, though some stretches are still on life support; oxygen bubblers prevent fish from suffocating. It remains a stunning but fragile home.

The pipeline is also intimately connected to Sebago Lake, the drinking water source for the Portland Water District and 15 percent of Maine's population. The PMPL follows the lake's largest tributary, Crooked River, for at least 10 miles, crossing it six times. This river sustains nearly 40,000 angler days per year by providing virtually all spawning habitat for Sebago Lake’s prized wild landlocked salmon. As the pipeline nears Sebago Lake, it crosses the mouth of Panther Run and then snakes along the lake's eastern shore. The Portland Water District has waivers for federal filtration requirements, granted for exceptional water quality and watershed protection measures. Fewer than 50 of the 50,000 public water supplies in the United States have such waivers. If the Portland Water District is compromised, it could lose these waivers and be forced to pay upwards of $70 million for a filtration plant and millions more in annual operating costs.

Beyond the immediate threat to New England's waterways, tar sands represent a global environmental threat (click here to see how tar sands mining has devastated huge swaths of the largest intact forest ecosystem left on Earth). Tar sands produce 20 percent more global warming pollution than conventional oil. In fact, tar sands are the fastest growing source of global warming pollution in North America. They are also one of the most expensive forms of gasoline on the planet.

Instead of enriching the Canadian the tar sands oil industry, Americans need to invest in alternatives to oil at home. Fortunately, the best investments for the planet will create home-grown jobs to produce new lines of high fuel economy cars, grow our electric vehicle industry and expand our public transit systems. And in the meantime, New Englanders will have to fight to protect their rivers, land, and coast from any pipeline project that proposes to export tar sands through New England.

-- Richard Brown, Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign

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