FORT WAYNE – If people who live along the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., were surprised there was a 30-inch oil pipeline under their feet, they shouldn't have been.
The pipeline – which spewed more than 1 million gallons of oil into what had been a pristine stretch of the river – is like hundreds of others across the country, moving millions of gallons of oil, gasoline, natural gas and other hazardous materials.
Transmission pipelines are large pipes, usually underground, that move crude oil from ports to refineries, gasoline from refineries to distribution centers, and natural gas from city to city. Thousands more miles of smaller pipes – called gathering and distribution pipelines – move natural gas to homes and businesses.
Transmission pipelines are so numerous that there are more than 8,500 miles of them in Indiana alone. That's enough to run pipe from New York City to Los Angeles three times. Add in nearly 40,000 miles of distribution pipelines in Indiana and you could almost circle the globe twice.
There are 101 miles of transmission pipelines in Allen County, running around and into the city of Fort Wayne. One natural gas transmission line runs under the heart of Waynedale and through Foster Park. Another runs under numerous neighborhoods on the city's east edge. Kendallville and Huntington are surrounded by them; drivers on Interstate 69 will cross six between Huntington County's southern border and the Michigan line, three of them between Auburn and the Steuben County line.
"They're everywhere," said Bernie Beier, Fort Wayne-Allen County Homeland Security director. "They're all over."
And, when the volume of materials moved compared with the accidents that occur is considered, pipelines are safe. But the volumes involved also mean that when there is an accident, the potential for catastrophe is multiplied.
"It is a low probability that it will happen, but when it does, it's always going to be big," Beier said.
The safest way?
Paul Oleska, owner of Oleska and Associates, a pipeline safety consulting firm in Akron, Ohio, said transmission pipelines are extremely safe and getting safer, especially considering the alternatives.
"It's by far – by far – the safest way to transport materials," Oleska said. "If you were to try to transport that amount of material by truck, you would have trucks continuously all over the place. You'd have greater environmental problems and greater safety problems."
The line that leaked in Marshall, Mich., moved 7.98 million gallons of oil a day from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ontario, according to its owners, Enbridge Energy Partners. Moving that by truck would require almost 900 tankers, or one about every minute and a half.
Of course, there are accidents, including 46 in Indiana in the past 10 years. Those accidents have caused seven deaths and 10 injuries, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which oversees pipelines. The accidents spilled 139,482 gallons of material and caused $19.5 million in damage.
Three of the accidents – one in 2003 and two in 2008 – were on pipelines operated by Enbridge.
Enbridge officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Pipelines are so safe, Oleska said, because they're buried; they can't be disturbed or tampered with when underground. But being out of sight also makes it harder for authorities to maintain them and ensure they're not corroding or having other issues.
Being out of sight also leads to what Oleska said has become the biggest danger to pipelines – excavating crews that don't know the pipeline is there.
"That is the single greatest threat we have to the system," he said. "But there's been a tremendous amount of work done over the last several years to improve that problem," including a national call-before-you-dig number, 8-1-1.
Beier said education and communication are key in preventing and responding to accidents.
"(Pipeline operators are) required to meet with first-responders once a year. We get copies of all their emergency response plans and all their contact information," Beier said. "We've got a pretty close working relationship."
For the city of Marshall itself, the Enbridge catastrophe could have been much, much worse.
The leak, reported July 26, was downstream of the city and outside the city limits, City Manager Tom Tarkiewicz said. Officials are still investigating how the leak happened, but the effect on the town has been tremendous.
"With 1,500 extra people, for a town of about 7,500, it has strained the resources of our businesses," Tarkiewicz said. "Our restaurants are very busy, our hotels are sold out."
Between the rush at meal times, he said, restaurants are busy packing boxed meals for the army of contractors, Enbridge employees, state and federal personnel and wildlife rescuers.
At least they have food to pack now.
"Some of the restaurants, especially the fast-food restaurants, ran out of food," Tarkiewicz said. "There was such a huge response in the first two days, the restaurants were not prepared."
Looking out his office window to the traffic circle at the center of downtown, Tarkiewicz estimated one-third of the traffic going by was related to the response.
At a glance
Experts say underground pipelines are by far the safest way to move hazardous materials such as oil and natural gas. There have been 46 transmission pipeline accidents in Indiana in the last decade:
|Property damage||Gallons spilled|
|Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration|