Arkansas Oil Spill Raises Concerns About NEK Pipeline

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An oil spill in Arkansas may add urgency to Vermont legislation that would regulate oil pipelines.

Environmentalists point to similarities between the pipeline in Arkansas that ruptured and one in northern Vermont that could be used to ship tar sands oil. 

The accident last week in Mayflower, AR spilled about 80,000 gallons of oil and forced the evacuation of 22 homes.

The 20-inch, underground line was used to carry tar sands oil from western Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.  

Jim Murphy, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation, said the Arkansas pipeline has much in common with a line that runs across northern Vermont from Montreal to Portland, Maine. 

"We’re talking about two aging pipelines. This pipeline I think was built in the ‘40s. The pipeline that would be reversed in Vermont was built in the ‘50s. Neither pipeline was built for tar sands use. Both pipelines are ultimately owned by Exxon," he said.

The flow in the Arkansas line was reversed in 2006 to ship the heavier crude from western Canada.

Murphy and other environmentalists say that transporting tar sands oil in older pipelines can be risky because the substance is corrosive and is often shipped at higher temperatures.

But Larry Wilson, the head of the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, testified recently that pipelines are the safest way to move oil across the country. And Wilson said tar sands oil did not pose an additional safety risk. 

Westminster Democrat David Deen chairs the House, Fish Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. He said the pipeline executive also testified that any spills would be detected quickly.

"We were assured that there is nearly instantaneous notice of rupture, rupture of containment," Deen said. "And 80,000 gallons is a lot of rupture." 

The Senate has passed a bill that would add additional environmental oversight for oil pipelines. The legislation would require Act 250 review if the flow of the Vermont pipeline is reversed to carry tar sands from Montreal to Maine. The line currently carries conventional crude west but pipeline officials have said they’re looking for new ways to use it, including shipping tar sands oil.

"It isn’t a safety issue," Deen said. "It’s environmental impacts. But if you’re going to change the function of a tube like this, then you probably ought to take a look at the environmental impacts."

But Deen said he wants to hold off on moving the bill because a district environmental in the Northeast Kingdom is also considering whether Act 250 applies.

"I don’t want to end up at cross purposes with the work that’s going on there. So I’m giving it a week or so of breathing room, and then we’ll take it up," he said. 

The state Agency of Natural Resources has told the district environmental commission that Act 250 review should be required if the pipeline is converted to carry tar sands.

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