MERRILLVILLE | About 30 hard hat-clad work crews have been mucking through mud throughout Northwest Indiana over the past few months while installing a $1.5 billion pipeline that will carry crude oil from Canada and the Dakotas to Midwestern refineries, including the BP facility in Whiting.
An estimated 650 workers — including roving contractors and hires from local union halls — have been drilling tunnels underneath roads, marshland, interstates, stores and the Turkey Creek Golf Course in Merrillville. They are burying a 36-inch steel pipeline that is big enough for a man to crawl into and made up of 80-foot-long segments that weigh more than a car.
Once the new Line 6B pipeline is fully in the ground, Enbridge Energy Parters LP will cut off the flow of crude oil — the viscous, heavy kind BP has been spending billions to refine more of in Whiting — through the existing 45-year-old pipe sometime early next year. Within two to three days, the oil instead will gush through the new pipeline that workers have been installing between the Michigan/Indiana border and the Enbridge terminal in Griffith.
The massive pipeline replacement is believed to be the second biggest construction project in Northwest Indiana in recent years, after the $3.8 billion upgrade to the BP Whiting Refinery, said Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith. Work was supposed to be completed by the end of the year, but the placement of the pipe into the ground will not be finished until at least February because of delays in obtaining all the needed permits, said project manager Tom Hodge.
Work crews also will return next summer, and possibly in the summer of 2015 as well, to patch up torn-up ground throughout Northwest Indiana. They will plant new vegetation and restore the landscaping along a 60-mile swath the pipeline has cut through Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.
In most places, the new pipe lies about 10 to 25 feet away from the old line, which will be flushed and filled with nitrogen to prevent groundwater from getting in and causing any contamination. Enbridge will continue to maintain the old Line 6B and is leaving it in the ground to avoid the expense and hassle of tearing it out.
Enbridge is investing about $300 million into the new section of Line 6B that slices across northern Indiana. Workers have been putting in 12-hour shifts while the operation runs 24 hours a day, for six or seven days a week. Heavy machinery buzzes loudly, in some cases right across the street from neighborhoods, and Enbridge has even put up a few affected homeowners in hotels so they can get some undisturbed sleep.
The contractor doing the construction is spending an estimated $30 million on wages for 250 local workers from Indiana and Michigan. Workers, who include traveling contractors who specialize in pipeline installation, also are expected to spend another $7 million at local businesses, including laundromats, hotels and restaurants.
Construction is currently about 80 percent to 90 percent complete, but much work remains, including boring a 2,400-foot-long length of pipe underneath the Turkey Creek Golf Course, Hodge said. Workers have set up stations on either side of the course, where they have built wooden-plank roads to keep their vehicles from sticking in the mud while they dig out trenches and prepare to lower the pipe. The metal tube is so heavy that it crushed the top layer of stacked pallets it rests on.
The Line 6B pipeline is big not only in heft and diameter, but also to the American way of life. The pipeline that runs between Griffith and Canada pumps about 70 percent of the oil that is refined in the Midwest, and most of the oil that is used in the greater Chicago area, Smith said.
Enbridge has been replacing the line, which was first built in 1968 and became operational the following year, with a bigger pipe to meet increased demand for crude oil from the Canadian oil sands region, where production has been booming in recent years. Midwestern refineries, including in Whiting and the greater Detroit metropolitan area, want more crude because it is cheaper to buy and transport than oil that is imported or shipped up from the Gulf Coast, Smith said.
The Texas-based energy company started to replace the pipeline last year after it broke in 2010 near Marshall, Mich., and spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River system. Enbridge has taken extra safety precautions this time, including installing more than 20 additional remotely operated valves that will allow the company to shut down the flow of oil in case a backhoe were to breach the pipe or some other emergency were to occur.
The pipe itself is much improved and safer, Hodge said. The old pipe had a quarter-inch wall, while the new pipe is twice as thick with a half-inch wall. The new pipe is made out of a higher-grade steel.
"The material is stronger. It's thicker. It's got a better coating on it," Hodge said. "The original pipe had a field-applied tape as its corrosion protection. This new pipe has a factory-applied fusion-bonded epoxy. It's state of the art, the best coating we have today."
Automated welding helps avoid human error. Enbridge uses ultrasounds and X-rays to check the welds on 100 percent of the pipe that goes into the ground, and field-tests it by running water through at 130 percent of the pressure that the oil would exert.
"We want a much better, safer pipeline than exists today," Hodge said. "We want to keep the public as safe as possible, and the environment."