In the last six months, Enbridge Pipelines Inc. has filed hundreds of maintenance notices for cracks, dents and corrosion on the controversial Line 9 pipeline that runs through rural Hamilton.

Activists and pipeline experts say it’s a sign that the 38-year-old line is brittle, and strengthens their argument against the company’s current plan to reverse the pipeline’s flow and increase its capacity to carry crude.

But Enbridge says the wealth of maintenance digs are just further proof that the company is committed to keeping the line in good shape and that the maintenance attention is "prudent" preparation should its application be accepted by the National Energy Board. 

From July to December of last year, there were 308 maintenance digs along line 9 — and the vast majority were for cracks in the line. In July alone, Enbridge filed 105 maintenance notices for digs on line 9, according to documents filed with the NEB.

hi-enbridge-map

Enbridge is seeking approval from the NEB to boost Line 9B’s capacity to 300,000 barrels per day, up from 240,000 that currently flow through the 845-kilometre line. (Enbridge Pipelines Inc.)

In September, Enbridge conducted 16 integrity digs for cracks in the Hamilton area of the pipeline alone.

“It just seems to me that there are so many imperfections along the route, and it’s going to get worse because of the dillbit being transported,” said Robert Korol, a retired civil engineering professor from McMaster University.

Korol authored a submission for the NEB’s consideration in which he condemns the pipeline reversal proposal, citing stress, corrosion and crack data.

“There are simply too many flaws in a pipeline that is 38 years old to really repair and recover all of the problems that could arise in the future,” Korol said.

Boosting the flow

Enbridge is seeking approval from the NEB to boost Line 9B’s capacity to 300,000 barrels per day, up from the 240,000 that currently flow through the line. The flow reversal would move from westbound to eastbound, carrying bitumen from the oilsands in Alberta to Quebec refineries.

Enbridge Line 9 integrity digs by month, 2013

  • July: 105
  • August: 68
  • September: 77
  • October: 29
  • November: 12
  • December: 17

Source: National Energy Board

But the number of dig reports doesn't indicate an unusual amount of activity, says Enbridge spokesperson Graham White. 

Enbridge rotates the lines on which crews focus on a yearly basis, “and this is Line 9’s year,” he said. “It’s a pipeline that has been operating for 40 years quite safely, offering a basic and essential service.”

White also told CBC Hamilton that the company is focusing on Line 9 in case the NEB approves the flow reversal and increase. “That’s a factor. We are being prudent with that,” he said. “But we would be doing it regardless.”

“If it was rejected tomorrow, it doesn’t mean we would pack up our tools and go away,” he said.

Cause for concern

Pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz says the number of integrity digs Enbridge is conducting doesn’t point to imminent disaster should the NEB decide to allow the Line 9 reversal. But it does signify a definite cause for concern, he says.

“It sounds to me that they’re trying to convince the NEB that their inline inspection tools are readily available,” Kuprewicz told CBC Hamilton in a phone interview. “But it should be a real concern if you have that many crack digs showing up.”

Kuprewicz, the president of the Redmond, Wash.-based pipeline safety firm Accufacts Inc., also authored a scathing report on Line 9B that was submitted to the NEB, in which he concludes corrosion wall loss is prevalent and a high risk along Line 9, and changing crude slates will substantially increase crack growth rates.

“This line — based on their own findings — says there are a whole lot of cracks in this system,” he said.

The company is also trying to make improvements on its lines and leak detection systems because of the spill it is still cleaning up in Michigan after a pipeline ruptured and spilled 3.3 million litres of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the company to return to the river to dredge areas where the agency believes remains of the heavy bitumen fossil fuel have collected.

The Kalamazoo incident is the largest on-land spill in the history of the U.S., and has already cost Enbridge more than $1 billion.

“We wanted to make improvements,” White said. “That changed our digs from hundreds a year to thousands a year.”

“We’re doing many more than anyone in the industry.”

Verifying a 'real risk'

Data reports Enbridge is getting from “electrocardiogram-like” sensors that are inserted into its lines are showing a high need for integrity digs because of new assessment methods the company is using, White says.

Kuprewicz maintains the company should do a complete hydrotest of the pipeline before the NEB approves any reversal. “I’m not saying don’t do this — I’m saying make sure the line can take the service,” he said.

“In a way, it’s good that Enbridge is doing these [digs],” he said.

“But it could just be verifying that there’s a real risk here.”

Opponents to the Line 9 reversal, some of whom have staged protests and held sit-ins at pumping stations like the one in Flamborough, worry that Enbridge plans to run a heavier, and what they claim is a more corrosive, kind of oil through the line that will stress the aging infrastructure.

The oil giant is currently in the midst of expanding the flow through the almost six-decades old Line 7 pipeline, which runs from Sarnia to the Westover Terminal in Flamborough. The line had been carrying 147,000 barrels per day, but will soon be carrying 180,000 barrels per day, an increase of about 22 per cent.