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Business and Economy

Federal Regulators Flag Pipeline Risks Linked to Reversing Flow

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SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine - Federal safety regulators are alerting pipeline operators about the possible risks associated with reversing the flow of oil and gas in their systems. In a recent advisory, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also says switching product or flow reversal "may not be advisable" in some cases. This could have implications for the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company based in South Portland.

In a September bulletin, regulators pointed out that two recent pipeline failures occured on hazardous liquid pipelines where the flow had been reversed. One involved the spill of about 20,000 barrels of crude oil in a North Dakota field in 2013. The other involved the release of about 5,000 barrels of crude oil into an Arksansas neighborhood.

The Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company has also expressed interest in flow reversal, to possibly send Canadian tar sands oil to South Portland. Regulators now say that could affect a pipeline's integrity.

"And the reason that is, is because it changes the stress points, and I think that's particularly important on older pipelines like the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line that have had a lot of years of use," says Jim Murphy, who is senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation in Vermont, where towns along the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line route have raised red flags about the company's interest.

New Hampshire and Maine residents have also protested the possible switch, with the city of South Portland opting to pass a local ordinance to prohibit tar sands export. Murphy says the recent bulletin marks the first time that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has ever cautioned the industry about such risks.

"It's been a very industry friendly agency," Murphy says. "The National Wildlife Federation, along with several other groups, almost two years ago now, asked that this agency look at the regulations they have on the books regarding tar sands safety and how it impacts pipelines, and the agency's been very unresponsive."

Murphy says the fact that the agency has come out with a warning and recommendations for testing is significant, even though the bulletin is advisory only and does not contain new regulations. A spokesman for the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Company did not return a call by airtime.