DETROIT (AP) — A Canadian company’s failure to deal adequately with cracks
in an oil pipeline and its slow response to a 2010 rupture in southwestern
Michigan likely caused the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history,
the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
Enbridge Inc. knew in 2005 that its pipeline near Marshall, a city 95 miles
west of Detroit, was cracked and corroded, but it didn’t perform excavations
that ultimately might have prevented the rupture, NTSB investigators told
the five-member board at a meeting in Washington.
Investigators also faulted Enbridge control center personnel for twice
pumping more oil into the line after the spill began and failing to discover
what had happened for more than 17 hours, when an employee of a natural gas
company notified them.
The board voted to approve the findings and 19 recommendations for safety
improvements after testimony concluded.
The NTSB doesn’t have the power to regulate pipeline companies, but its
safety recommendations carry significant weight with lawmakers, federal and
state regulators, and industry officials. Results of its investigations
sometimes are used in lawsuits.
The spill dumped about 843,000 gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo
River and a tributary creek, fouling more than 35 miles of waterways and
wetlands. About 320 people reported symptoms from crude oil exposure.
Enbridge’s cleanup costs have exceeded $800 million, which NTSB Chairman
Deborah Hersman said was more than five times greater than the
next-costliest onshore spill — a 2005 release of 991,788 gallons by Chevron
Pipeline Co. That cleanup cost $150 million.
“This accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps by Enbridge,”
Hersman said. “But there is also regulatory culpability. Delegating too much
authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them
is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse. Regulators need regulations
and practices with teeth — and the resources to enable them to take
corrective action before a spill, not just after.”
Enbridge officials said the company had improved its operations and training
after the spill and would study the NTSB report to determine whether further
improvements were needed.
“Safety has always been core to our operations. Our intent from the
beginning of this incident has been to learn from it so we can prevent it
from happening again, and to also share what we have learned with other
pipeline operators,” said Stephen J. Wuori, president for liquids pipelines.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials
Safety Administration last week proposed a record $3.7 million civil penalty
Oil began leaking from a 6.5-foot-long gash around 6 p.m. on July 25, 2010.
Even though alarms sounded repeatedly at the Enbridge control center in
Edmonton, Alberta, staffers on hand misinterpreted them. Their failure to
act reflected a culture of laxity about following company procedures,
investigator Barry Strauch said.
“Learning about Enbridge’s poor handling of the rupture, you can’t help but
think of the Keystone Kops,” Hersman said. “Why didn’t they recognize what
was happening? What took so long?”
Patrick Daniel, Enbridge’s CEO, said: “We believe that the experienced
personnel involved in the decisions made at the time of the release were
trying to do the right thing. As with most such incidents, a series of
unfortunate events and circumstances resulted in an outcome no one wanted.”
Investigators traced the rupture to moisture seeping beneath plastic tape on
the steel pipe, causing corrosion. Instruments detected a series of
corrosion and fatigue cracks in 2005, investigator Matt Fox said.
Eventually, those cracks linked together to form the rupture.
Enbridge failed to grasp the significance of the cracks or to put together
findings from separate tests of pipe wall thickness in a way that would have
led them to dig up the pipe for a visual inspection, he said.
Deb Miller, 57, who lives near the Ceresco dam on the Kalamazoo River,
watched parts of the NTSB meeting online.
“We know and realize now that our river is never going to be the same,”
Miller said. “What can we learn from this and share with the rest of the
country so nobody has to go through what we went through?”