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Authorities search for cause of pipeline explosion

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The morning after
The scene of the pipeline explosion in Clearwater, Minnesota, as it looked Thursday morning.
Photo courtesy of Clearwater County

The explosion and fire happened Wednesday as workers were repairing a section of crude oil pipeline about three miles southeast of Clearbrook.  Witnesses say there was a huge fireball and flames that raged through the night.  

Clearwater County Sheriff Mike Erickson says the blaze covered an area 100 feet wide and half a city block long, and could be seen from miles away.

pipeline map
Enbridge Energy Partners map showing the Lakehead and North Dakota System pipeline.
Photo courtesy of Enbridge

"It was just a massive flame, probably 100 feet in the air. And as it's burning, it's a huge cloud of black smoke," said Erickson.

The area is so isolated only 10 nearby homes needed to be evacuated. Clearwater County Attorney Jeanine Brand, who is also part of the county's emergency response team, says initially the fire burned so hot that fire and emergency crews were unable to get very close.

"Around 2 o'clock the fire had subsided enough that two bodies were extracted from the scene.  Those are employees or contracted employees of Enbridge," said Brand. "Shortly after 4 o'clock, or between 4 and 5 a.m., the fire then was extinguished using foam brought in by Enbridge."

The names of the two victims have not been released, but authorities say the pipeline workers were part of a crew out of Superior, Wisconsin.

Mike Erickson
Clearwater County Sheriff Mike Erickson says the blaze covered an area 100 feet wide and half a city block long, and could be seen from miles away.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The pipeline is one of several lines that deliver Canadian crude oil to refineries in the U.S. Three of four pipelines that were closed following the blast have been reopened. The fourth line is expected to be repaired and reopened in two or three days.

Enbridge Vice President Richard Bird says the accident hits close to home. 

"This is a tragic day in our company's history. We've had a presence in this community for more than 50 years and this incident hits close to home for all of us at Enbridge," said Bird. "We are greatly saddened by the events of the past 24 hours, and words cannot express the tremendous sense of loss that can be felt throughout our entire organization."

Pipeline workers were finishing repairs and refilling a section of pipeline with crude oil where a pinhole leak was discovered two weeks ago. Bird says the two victims were sitting in a vehicle about 20 feet from the pipeline when the blast occurred.

"This would not have normally been a dangerous operation."

"This would not have normally been a dangerous operation. The work that was underway was work that has been done many, many times in the past," said Bird. "We've never had a situation like this occur in this type of repair procedure. We have employees near the site to ensure that there isn't any minor problems associated with refilling the pipeline, and that was the role of these two employees."

No one else was injured in the blast, but several vehicles were destroyed. 

Company officials say it's not yet clear how much oil spilled from the pipeline.  Officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made an initial assessment of the site Thursday morning and determined that environmental damage was minimal. 

Doug Bellefeuille was part of the MPCA team at the site. He says the frozen ground prevented oil from seeping into the soil.

Janine Brand
Janine Brand, Clearwater County attorney and emergency response team member.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The MPCA's Doug Bellefeuille said the vast majority of the petroleum that spilled during the leak was destroyed in the fire. Bellefeuille says some of the oil moved down into an adjacent wetland. 

"There are obviously environmental impacts, but they are limited to soil contamination and possible minor groundwater contamination in the area immediately at the leak site itself," said Bellefeuille. "We don't anticipate any off-site issues or any groundwater contamination at any distance away from the pipelines."

The pipeline explosion has been the talk of the tiny town of Clearbrook, according to Mayor Mike Gibeau. The mayor says firefighters and local emergency responders had trained with Enbridge employees just last month on how best to handle such an emergency.  Gibeau says Enbridge is an important part of the community.

"This town has always supported the pipelines, because they're a big business in our community," said Gibeau. "They employ people and they donate to our community, and anytime we have something going on, they support us, so we fully support them.

The residents who were evacuated from their homes were put up in local hotels overnight. All but one are now back in their homes.