Faulty Welding Used in MT Pipeline

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 @ 02:01 PM gHale

Bridger Pipeline will replace the ruptured pipeline put together using faulty welding techniques that leaked 40,000 gallons of crude oil last Saturday underneath the Yellowstone River in Montana fouling thousands of residents’ drinking water.

The incident commander said the company has began to look into pipeline replacement plans, said Bill Salvin, the spokesman for Bridger Pipeline.

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“Before oil runs through that pipeline and before oil runs underneath the Yellowstone River, we’re going to run a new section of pipeline underneath the river,” Salvin said. “It’s going to be deeper. It will be a brand new pipeline. That’s a bit down the road before we can get that in place. But before another drop of oil goes down that pipeline and underneath the river, we’re going to make sure it goes through a new pipeline.”

That news came on the heels of officials revealing the Poplar Pipeline that spilled the oil into the Yellowstone River ended up built with pipe made using faulty welding techniques, and its owner has had a series of spills on the line. These two factors put the pipeline at a higher risk for problems.

The pipeline’s owner, Bridger Pipeline LLC, has had nearly double the number of incidents per mile of pipe than the average company with pipelines carrying oil, gas or other hazardous liquids over the last six years, according to data compiled by the Pipeline Safety Trust. Federal records found most of Bridger’s incidents occurred on the Poplar line and were preventable.

In addition, more than a third of the pipeline’s steel segments ended up fused in the early 1950s using low-frequency electric resistance welds (LF-ERW), according to a recent federal filing by Bridger. Salvin said the segment under the river ended up replaced in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, but he didn’t know what type of pipe the company used as a replacement.

Pipe made before 1970 using the LF-ERW method is more vulnerable to cracks and dangerous imperfections along the lengthwise seams. The same faulty manufacturing method set the stage for ExxonMobil’s 2013 Pegasus oil spill in Arkansas. With heightened vigilance and careful operation, pipeline companies can safely operate those lines, according to pipeline experts.

The cause of the Poplar Pipeline spill is still unclear, so no one is sure if manufacturing flaws or some other preventable condition played a role. Parts of the Yellowstone River have ice up to two feet thick, a factor hindering clean-up efforts and will likely delay removal and inspection of the failed pipe.

The spill fouled the drinking water for 6,000 residents of nearby Glendive.

The Poplar is the second crude oil pipeline to foul the Yellowstone River since 2011, when Exxon’s Silvertip Pipeline poured 63,000 gallons of oil into the river’s flooding waters. The Exxon spill triggered federal and state fines, lawsuits from landowners, and a review of all fossil fuel pipelines crossing the Yellowstone.

The Poplar line, 12 inches in diameter at the Yellowstone River, can transport up to 42,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Northern Montana south to Baker, Mont. Company officials have not provided answers to other questions about the Poplar Pipeline, such as its length, ownership history and uses over the years.

When it leaked, the Poplar was mostly carrying light crude oil from Wyoming and the prolific Bakken region in North Dakota, Salvin said. Officials estimated the spill size to be between 12,000 gallons and 40,000 gallons. Salvin said about 10,000 gallons of oil have been recovered from inside the damaged pipe.

The company said oil flowed out of the pipeline from directly under the riverbed, but the nature of the damage is unclear. However, because Bridger contractors were able to send a ‘smart pig’ inspection device through the damaged portion of the pipeline, the breach is probably not a large split along the pipe’s seam—the type of rupture that’s associated with LF-ERW pipe.

Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline, which is of similar vintage and manufacture as the Poplar Pipeline, split open along its lengthwise seam in an Arkansas neighborhood in 2013. Subsequent analysis concluded the damage stemmed from manufacturing defects, but the company never determined what caused long-dormant cracks to grow undetected until the pipe ruptured.

In its annual report to federal regulators, Bridger said it operated 384 miles of pipelines, and 186 miles, or 35 percent, consisted of 1950s-era LF-ERW pipe. While Bridger owns four pipeline systems, most, if not all of the LF-ERW segments are on the Poplar system. The company’s Four Bears Pipeline is new and its two other systems are gathering lines not regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Pipeline Safety Trust, based in Bellingham, Wash., has used PHMSA reports to compile incident rates for pipelines carrying hazardous liquids such as crude oil. The group’s most recent calculations cover incidents from 2006 through 2013, and found that the average rate was 0.015 incidents per mile of pipeline operated.

Bridger, with 316 miles of pipelines and nine incidents during that period, had an incident rate of 0.028, according to Rebecca Craven, program director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. Combined, those incidents released 10,800 gallons of oil and caused $175,000 in property damage.

“One thing that’s notable is that, with the exception of one release in 2008, all of the causes were within the control of the operator,” Craven said. Of the eight preventable incidents, two involved corrosion, and the rest were the result of material, weld or equipment failures.

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