Enbridge handled Michigan pipeline spill like ‘Keystone Cops,’ National Safety Board chief charges

By Peter O’Neil, Calgary Herald July 10, 2012 10:09 AM

OTTAWA – National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman said Tuesday Enbridge Inc.’s handling of a massive 2010 crude oil spill in Michigan resembled the “Keystone Cops.”Hersman also asked if that catastrophic spill, combined with a deadly 2010 pipeline explosion in California, raised questions about the inevitability of future pipeline disasters.

She made the comments while revealing the NTSB’s findings on the probable cause of a massive bitumen crude spill in Michigan in 2010 involving a pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., the proponent of the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast.

She disclosed that the total cost of the spill has now exceeded more than $800 million US, or more than five times the previous record for most costly spill on U.S. land.

“When we were examining Enbridge’s poor handling to their response to this rupture you can’t help but think about the Keystone Cops,” Hersman said, referring to the fictional incompetent policemen in silent film comedies of the early 20th century.

“Why didn’t they recognize what was happening and what took so long?”

She also asked if the 2010 Enbridge spill, as well as a 2010 Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline explosion in California that killed eight people and left another 58 injured, raised questions about the entire industry.

“In both cases we found problems with integrity management programs, control centres, public awareness programs, and emergency response,” she said.

“While our findings raise red flags about the safety of these two companies, they should also force us to ask hard questions of this vital industry.

“With more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline running through this country — enough to circle the earth one hundred times — we have to ask, ‘Are these companies representative of others’” If the answer is yes, we can expect to be back here again discussing the same issues with a different company. The only unknowns are when? Where? And, how much damage?”

Enbridge Chief Executive Officer Pat Daniel was in the audience as Hersman delivered her scathing comments on the company’s handling of the spill.

Hersman noted that the company took 17 hours after the initial alarm before taking action, and she added that the company failed to take action despite knowing for years that the pipeline suffered from corrosion dating back to 2004.

The NTSB will also propose safety recommendations stemming from the spill near the municipality of Marshall, which has so far caused more than $800 million US in damage and prompted earlier this month a proposed $3.7 million fine from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Enbridge has said the rupture resulted in the release of 843,444 gallons of diluted bitumen crude, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that 1,148,230 gallons of oil has already been collected in and near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

The incident has fired up international opposition to two major Canadian oilsands pipeline projects – Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal to Kitimat, and TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL project to the U.S. Gulf Coast that has been delayed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Significant attention has focused on the “human error” aspect of the 2010 spill, since the company didn’t start taking action until 17 hours after the first alarm warned of problems in Michigan.

The crude was released in a wetland area near Marshall, Michigan, a “high consequence area within a mostly rural, wet and low-lying region,” according to the NTSB.

“The released oil pooled into a marshy area over the rupture site before flowing 700 feet south into Talmadge Creek, which ultimately carried it into the Kalamazoo River.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation, in its justification for the $3.7 million fine that Enbridge has the right to challenge, also noted in its findings that Enbridge did not deal with “corrosion anomalies” on the Michigan line dating back to 2004.

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