Enbridge Energy’s new projects to expand and reconstruct fuel transportation pipelines could have environmental consequences for Wisconsin, leading some to question the sustainability of such pipelines.

Enbridge initiated two projects that work on pipelines in northern Wisconsin. The first is the Sandpiper project, which involves the construction of a new pipe from Cayuga, North Dakota to Enbridge’s main terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The second project involves a complete replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3, which begins in Alberta, Canada and ends in Superior as well.

Line 3, which spans approximately 1,100 miles, is a “vital part” of Enbridge’s pipeline system, Enbridge spokesperson Shannon Gustafson said. Throughout 2015, Line 3 underwent several maintenance activities to retain safety standards. But because maintenance is costly and there were an usual amount of problems, Enbridge decided to reconstruct the pipeline as a whole and make it bigger, she said.

“There is a crucial need for safe operation and [Enbridge pipeline projects] will reduce future maintenance programs,” Gustafson said.

But these projects could have consequences for the environment.

Construction of one or both projects could potentially disturb nearby wetlands and waterways, Department of Natural Resources wetland and waterway permits specialist Ben Callan said. Some of the construction would require that forests be cleared, which would threaten habitats of certain plant and wildlife species. Water quality would also be impacted, he said.

The DNR said in a statement, that Line 3’s construction could impact six rare and endangered plants and one rare turtle species. While the construction will not significantly reduce the species’ likelihood of survival, it will still have an adverse impact on them.

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But Gustafson said reconstructing Line 3 would be more ecological in the long run, as maintenance costs would be less. The current Line 3 poses a higher risk of environmental damage because it is not as safe as it should be. Replacing it would make the line safer and less prone to problems.

Gustafson said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which manages pipelines at the federal level, said pipelines are one of the safest methods to transport energy sources. Gustafson said they cost much less than rail or road transport methods and have a smaller carbon footprint. She said protecting wildlife habitat and the environment is the “core of Enbridge’s commitment to safety.”

“Safety and reliability comes with tremendous responsibility and that’s why our number one priority is the safety and reliability of our work,” Gustafson said.

The projects are awaiting approval in Wisconsin. Enbridge also still needs DNR approval to build in the rare species’ habitats.

Apprentice with The Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter in Madison Cassie Steiner said pipelines and their construction affect the environment and human life as well. Instead of expanding and reconstructing pipelines, she said Wisconsin should invest in alternative, renewable energy sources.

Many of Enbridge’s pipelines, including Line 3, transport tar sand, which is a thick, heavy fossil fuel, Steiner said. Tar sand extraction can lead to deforestation, and the chemical is difficult to clean if spilled. It sinks into water and can only be removed by completely dredging the affected water source, she said.

“Not only are the chemicals transported in pipelines, like tar sands, less effective and a lot harder to clean up but they’re also more costly,” Steiner said. “They are some of the dirtiest fuels ever.”

Steiner said transporting chemicals like tar sands in pipelines is an overall unsustainable process that impacts biodiversity. Tar sands are often mixed with chemicals to thin them for easier transport in pipelines. These chemicals can evaporate and pollute the air with benzene and other harmful compounds, increasing the carbon footprint and affecting people living near the spills. 

Callan said spills are handled through different federal agencies including Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. On a local level, parties responsible for a spill have to contact the DNR to minimize its impact, and address appropriate remediation and restoration of the area. He said no matter how safe a pipeline is, it poses several risks that must be accounted for in advance.

“The risk doesn’t go away,” Callan said. “The goal is to try and stay ahead of it and prevent it from occurring.”

Gustafson said Enbridge may have a history of spills, but it always takes responsibility for damage it causes. Since 2012, Enbridge has invested more than $4 billion in safety and maintenance projects. She said the company continues to invest in tools, technology and training to make all projects more efficient.

Enbridge Energy is awaiting Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s  approval on the projects. Wisconsin’s public can comment on them until April 11. If approved, they are expected to be completed in early 2019. 

A previous version of this article said incorrectly said the projects were already approved. The Badger Herald regrets this error.