Enbridge bungled handling of Michigan crude spill, U.S. agency says in scathing report

By PETER O’NEIL, Postmedia News July 10, 2012 11:05 AM

OTTAWA — Enbridge Inc.’s handling of a massive 2010 crude oil spill in southern Michigan smacks of the “Keystone Cops,” National Transportation Safety Board chairman Debbie Hersman said today.

Hersman made the comments while revealing the NTSB’s scathing findings on the probable cause of the spill that began in July 2010 involving a pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., the proponent of the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. The NTSB is an independent U.S. government investigative agency responsible for civil transportation accident investigation.

Hersman also chided Enbridge staff for taking more than 17 hours to respond to the rupture, despite knowing the pipeline suffered from corrosion dating back to 2004.

She disclosed the total cost of the Enbridge spill has now exceeded $800 million US, or more than five times the previous record for most costly spill on U.S. soil. Although Enbridge has said the rupture resulted in the release of 843,444 gallons of diluted bitumen crude near Marshall, Mich., the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that 1,148,230 gallons of oil has already been collected in and near the Kalamazoo River.

“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 police officers in silent film comedies of the early 20th century.

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

Hersman said poor regulatory oversight by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was also to blame: “In this rupture, we saw the operator take advantage of weak regulations for assessing and repairing crack indications …”

She also asked if the catastrophic spill — as well as a September 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,” Hersman 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 100 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?”

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

Enbridge chief executive Pat Daniel was in the audience as Hersman delivered her comments.

The NTSB will also propose safety recommendations stemming from the spill. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed fining Enbridge $3.7 million, noting the company’s failure to deal with long-standing “corrosion anomalies.”

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

With files from The Canadian Press

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