Michigan:Wolverine shuts down piepeline again

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Wolverine shuts down piepelin, but work hasn't affected gas prices yet Poor welds being repaired, including one near site of June rupture in Blackman Township.

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

By Linda Stiles Staff Writer

Are gasoline prices on their way back up to $2 a gallon?

Probably not, despite a shutdown of the Wolverine Pipeline Co. pipeline to fix poor welds, including one near the site of a fitting that ruptured in Blackman Township in June.

The spill sent some 70,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek, forcing 600 families from their homes in a one-square-mile area. It also disrupted a major source of supplies to gasoline stations in the state, resulting in prices rising to record $2-a-gallon levels.

The pipeline, which was shut down over the weekend, will be down for about a week.

So far, that hasn't impacted pump prices, said Gareth Zebley, president of Pipeline Oil Sales Inc., a Jackson-based distributor including to the company's own Buddy's Mini Mart chain.

"We didn't see any significant price changes over the weekend" in what the oil companies charge wholesalers like Pipeline, he said.

Crude oil prices, however, are again approaching record levels after a brief reprieve this summer.

"I don't think we'll see $2 a gallon anytime soon," Zebley said, adding that there's a good chance that prices will rise.

Don't blame a price hike on the pipeline fix, however, Wolverine spokesman Ron Embry said, because the company's wholesale customers were notified of the shutdown in advance.

That move allowed them to stock up on inventories, unlike when the pipeline ruptured, unexpectedly shutting down 30 percent of the state's gasoline supplies for nine days. "We're fairly confident there won't be any impact on product supply," Embry said.

The planned shutdown began over the weekend, after inspections showed eight "lower-quality welds" in the approximately 250 miles of pipeline between Joliet, Ill., and Detroit, Embry said.

The company had inspected 35 welded fittings that were similar to the pipe that broke near Morrill Road and Lansing Avenue.

Targets for repair include a fitting that's about 50 to 100 feet west of an oil company tank farm on Morrill Road - the opposite side of the storage tanks from where the pipeline burst in June.

The welds posed no immediate danger of leaks or ruptures, Embry said. "But given the failure in Jackson, it was prudent to repair them," he said.

The repairs weren't required by government safety regulators, although Wolverine did notify the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety of its findings and proposed course of action, Embry said.

Inspections were completed a week to 10 days ago. Embry couldn't immediately provide locations of all of the welds, but said the fittings in question are spaced about equally along the pipeline route. That would mean the questionable fittings are about 31 miles apart. Included in repairs was another welded fitting at Freedom Junction near Detroit, Embry said.

Over the weekend, petroleum was turned off to the pipe, and the line was cleared using nitrogen.

Eight teams are working simultaneously at each location through Wednesday, cutting out the bad welds and replacing them and inspecting the finished product.

Wolverine hopes to begin restarting the pipeline on Thursday, gradually phasing in the flow eastward, from Joliet to Detroit.

"The start-up will be slow and gradual" and monitored over a period of about 36 hours, Embry said. By Sunday, flow should resume all the way to Detroit.

Because there is spare capacity in the line, Wolverine will be able to nearly catch up with demand by the end of August, alleviating any gasoline shortages that are normally blamed for price increases at the pump.

"The forecast is that we will be one day behind," or 3 percent of the projected wholesale orders for the month, Embry said.

After the welds are completed, each will be X-rayed, the most thorough test available for the pipeline but one that can only be done when the pipe is empty, Embry said.

The 16-inch pipeline was installed 63 years ago. As changes and repairs were made at the suspected sites, the earlier welds were made with product still in the line, Embry said.

Wolverine dug up each of the suspect fittings, then ran them through a series of tests, including using a dye, a red liquid that when spread on the weld penetrates any microscopic cracks.

- Reach reporter Linda Stiles at jcpnews@citpat.com or 768-4918


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 16, 2000

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