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June 20, 2012

Going in Reverse: Trailbreaker Tar Sands Pipeline Proposal Threatens Central Canada and New England

Canadian tar sands

On Monday a coalition of 19 organizations in the U.S. and Canada, including Sierra Club, released a report sounding the alarm on the oil industry’s plan to revive a tar sands pipeline proposal from 2008 called “Trailbreaker.” The Trailbreaker plan would reverse two major existing pipelines, the Enbridge Line 9 and the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, to transport highly toxic tar sands crude 750 miles from central Canada to America’s New England coast for export.

The report and accompanying fact sheet detail the dangers of tar sands pipelines. Tar sands are viscous and highly abrasive, and must be pumped at extreme temperatures and pressures. The crude oil is also highly acidic, so tar sands pipelines are essentially carrying “hot liquid sandpaper” that corrodes steel much faster than conventional crude oil. According to the report, from 2007 to 2010, tar sands pipelines in Michigan, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin spilled “almost three times more crude per mile of pipeline when compared to the U.S. national average.” From 1999 to 2010, according to the company’s own records, Enbridge pipelines spilled 804 times, and released a total of 6.8 million gallons of oil into the environment.

When spilled, tar sands are difficult to clean up and even more toxic than conventional crude oil. Tar sands oil sinks in water, making conventional cleanup technologies useless. Tar sands contain cancer causing toxins, benzene, and other poisons that affect a person’s central nervous system. Factor in that the 500-mile Enbridge Line 9 is 37 years old and the 236-mile Portland-Montreal Pipeline is 62 years old—made decades before any tar sands mining—and the true danger of the Trailbreaker project becomes evident.

In July 2010 an Enbridge tar sands pipeline called Line 6B ruptured at a creek crossing in Michigan, spilling more than a million gallons and polluting the Kalamazoo River. After a botched response, 23 months and approximately $725 million in cleanup costs, the cleanup is still incomplete and 30 miles of river remain closed to the public. The disaster displaced 130 residents, sickened people, and shut down businesses.

The Trailbreaker pipeline endangers major lakes and rivers that flow into Lake Ontario, including the Humber, Trent, and Rogue. A significant spill in this area could “threaten countless bird and fish species, and impact millions of people living along the lake on both sides of the border.” This pipeline would jeopardize waterways that are host to hundreds of at-risk or endangered species and water sources like the St. Lawrence River (which provides Quebec with half of its drinking water).

The introduction of huge tanker ships carrying up to a million barrels of tar sands crude in Maine’s Portland Harbor, Casco Bay, and the Gulf of Maine would expose the region and the Northeastern U.S. coast to extreme danger.

The report recommends that the U.S. and Canadian government have more work to do to prevent major spills and ensure the safety of drinking water, wildlife, and human health before allowing large-scale tar sands infrastructure to cross Canada and New England.

Get the report and factsheet.

(Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute)

-- Kate Colarulli, Director of the Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Campaign.

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