A major expansion of Enbridge Energy oil pipeline capacity would quietly send more tar sands crude through Wisconsin than the higher profile Keystone XL line is designed to carry on its route a few hundred miles west.

Enbridge, already the top importer of heavy crude being extracted from western Canada, plans to send about half of that flow through its Line 61, a 42-inch pipe that runs from Superior to the Illinois border along a route that includes Portage, Dane and Rock counties.

A Dane County zoning committee is holding up the plan over concerns about the potential for a spill of the heavy petroleum product, which is mixed with a toxic solvent to make it flow through pipes.

But Enbridge insists that it has an above-average safety record and that its practices have improved since 2010, when it fouled 35 miles of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River by spilling nearly 20,000 barrels of tar sands crude in the largest-ever release from a U.S. pipeline.

The company’s Wisconsin plans would increase the flow through Line 61 to 1.2 million barrels per day, far more than the 860,000 barrels TransCanada Corp. wants to push through Keystone XL, which would cut a new route across the Canadian border and through the Great Plains. Both Calgary-based corporations say they are building to meet customer demand.

Ehud Ronn, a University of Texas business professor who specializes in energy industry finance, said producers want more avenues to move petroleum, and rail and highway transport pose greater hazards than pipelines.

“Although pipelines have encountered their own safety issues, they are the safest and most efficient way to transfer oil over long distances,” Ronn said.

Since it was proposed in 2008, Keystone XL has drawn national attention because it involves a new pipeline route. It was back in the news last week when President Obama threatened to veto a new push by Congressional Republicans to approve the line.

But critics of the Enbridge line say the company’s Michigan spill should earn the Wisconsin project just as much scrutiny even though the increased flow will travel an established path.

Line 61 is the newest of three Enbridge crude oil pipelines that share a roughly 80-foot right of way that runs a diagonal route across the state from the company’s terminal in Superior through a series of pump stations to the town of Lima in Rock County, where their paths split for the rest of the distance to the Illinois border.

New pumps, same pipes

Enbridge is adding pumping horsepower at 13 spots along the route to triple the 400,000 barrel per day flow Line 61 has averaged since it began operating in 2009. The first three new pumping stations fired up in August, increasing the rate to 560,000 barrels.

“Once they have the lines coming into the country there’s very little oversight and that’s a big problem,” said Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little said Line 61 meets federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration standards for the increased flow.

But local opponents like Carl Whiting of the Madison chapter of 350.org, which supports measures to fight climate change, said higher flow rates mean any pipeline rupture would spew more of the tar sands crude more quickly.

Whiting and the Sierra Club Wisconsin chapter point to the $1.2 billion and four years it took to clean up the Michigan spill after heavy tar sands petroleum sank to the river’s bottom.

“The unprecedented cost and damage of the catastrophic Kalamazoo spill was not simply because of the volume of the material spilled, but due to the nature of that material,” Whiting said. “Booming and skimming are far cheaper and simpler than digging and dredging.”

Concerns about pollution of rivers, lakes and groundwater along with worries about toxic fumes that sickened scores of people who were exposed to the Michigan spill played into decisions by five Wisconsin counties and two cities to pass resolutions calling on the state to conduct more thorough environmental impact studies and engineering reviews.

Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued Enbridge an air pollution permit for pumps and generators at its Superior terminal, and wetland and erosion control permits for construction of several pumping stations related to the Line 61 project, but it didn’t conduct an environmental assessment of the existing pipeline. That was done in 2006 before Line 61 was built.

During construction, Enbridge degraded wetlands, streams and private properties, prompting the DNR to allege more than 100 environmental violations. The company settled with the state for $1.1 million in fines in 2008.

The DNR likely would conduct another environmental assessment if the company adds a pipeline. Enbridge last year did field surveys in preparation for a possible Line 66 along the Line 61 right of way. Little said it’s not clear when or if the line will be built.

Pipeline safety

Federal law makes safe operation of pipelines the responsibility of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency approved the higher flow rate based on testing of the pipeline, Little said.

Little said the company’s safety record compared favorably to the industry overall from 2004 through 2013 as it spilled 9.1 barrels per billion barrel-miles, compared to 11.9 barrels for other companies.

The Enbridge unit that operates lines in Wisconsin and six other states reported 89 spills totaling 44,634 barrels since 2006 causing $860 million in property damage, four deaths and three injuries, according to records kept by the federal pipeline administration.

Enbridge pipelines in Wisconsin have ruptured at least five times since 2003, including a 1,200-gallon spill that poured out through a 4-foot-long split in an underground pipe in Adams County in 2012. The spill prompted the pipeline administration to order the company to improve its maintenance program.

But it is the 2010 Michigan spill that has captured the attention of Dane County officials.

In that case, state and federal agencies levied millions in fines in Michigan.

Enbridge personnel were as inept as “Keystone Kops,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said after an investigation showed three shifts of workers at the company control center in Edmonton, Alberta, misread pressure signals and other data as crude oil spilled for more than 17 hours.

Investigators said Enbridge detected corrosion and fatigue cracks in 2005 on the pipe section that ruptured, but never excavated to look more closely.

Sections of the river were closed for years.

Michigan public health officials said 150 people reported short-term health problems — headaches, respiratory distress, burning eyes and nausea — after exposure to fumes.

Insurance

Since then, Enbridge has invested $4.4 billion in safety and maintenance, including a new control center, revamped protocols and added more visual inspections of underground pipes that show signs of possible weakness, said Becky Haase, a Duluth-based company spokeswoman.

But Dane County’s zoning committee has balked at approving the permit the company needs to build the new pumping station in the town of Medina.

Enbridge wants to install four pumps, each driven by a 6,000-horsepower motor, near an existing pump house that helps drive the flow in one of its other pipelines.

Enbridge has agreed to build a catch basin around the new pump house to hold 50,000 barrels, or the amount that would be released in a one-hour spill at the higher flow rate. The basin would be twice the size of those being installed at the other 12 new stations for Line 61.

On Tuesday, Enbridge offered to pay a local engineering firm to independently assess for the county and nearby landowners whether pump station construction complied with the permit and company specifications.

But county officials are considering a requirement that the company buy more cleanup insurance to ensure a prompt and thorough response to a spill.

Enbridge increased its overall insurance coverage by $50 million to $700 million since 2010, but has said more isn’t necessary because federal and state cleanup funds are available.

The company covered all Michigan costs with insurance and budgeted money, Little said.

Enbridge owns pipelines in Washington state that have agreed to local insurance requirements, but the company said it can’t be forced because federal laws preempt local regulation of interstate pipelines.

The committee has delayed a vote on the permit several times. The next meeting on the issue is set for Jan. 27.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.