Hitting the pipe hard

Enbridge's tar sands oil pipelines dodge oversight

Aug 15, 2012 at 12:00 am
Enbridge Spill remaining below Ceresco Dam near Kalamazoo
Enbridge Spill remaining below Ceresco Dam near Kalamazoo

Here's a scary thought: 

What if the Enbridge pipeline rupture in Wisconsin late last month had occurred, say, in the company's oil pipelines running under the Straits of Mackinac or the St. Clair River? 

The answer is that we'd be talking about much more than the dramatic spike in gasoline prices Enbridge's most recent spill reportedly contributed to.

Enbridge, a Canadian company that owns the 1,900-mile-long Lakehead pipeline system that carries Canadian petroleum products across Michigan and other parts of the Midwest, is best known in this state for the catastrophic spill that pumped an estimated 1 million gallons of tar sands crude oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed a little more than two years ago.

Much has occurred regarding Enbridge since we wrote our cover story "Crude awakening" (June 27) about the fallout from the Kalamazoo disaster. 

For starters, the company has been hit with a proposed $3.7 million fine for the Kalamazoo spill, which occurred in July 2010. The penalty is the largest ever proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which cited the company for 24 alleged violations in connection with the massive spill near the town of Marshall.

According to a notice of probable violation issued by the agency last month, the government investigation "found multiple violations of its hazardous liquid pipeline safety regulations related to integrity management, failure to follow operations and maintenance procedures, and reporting and operator qualification requirements." Most disturbing, perhaps, is that Enbridge knew problems with the pipeline existed for at least five years before the leak but failed to correct them. It's not exactly confidence-inspiring to know that the National Transportation Safety Board determined that Enbridge employees responded to the Marshall spill in a manner worthy of the "Keystone Kops."

When we did our story, an Enbridge spokesperson suggested that it would be ridiculous to think the company would be negligent when it comes to ensuring pipeline safety. The costs associated with failure are just too great, we were told. 

In a blog about the issue, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift makes the case that safety obviously isn't the primary concern pipeline companies and associated trade groups claim it to be.

As shown by the government's investigation into the Marshall spill, Swift writes, "When forced to choose between expensive safety measures and saving money, pipeline operators face strong pressures to make the wrong choice."

How else can you explain the fact that the company knew at least as long ago as 2005 about the problems that led to the Marshall spill?

Likewise, the recent Wisconsin rupture occurred in a pipeline that "had suffered blowouts in the past and had a history of structural defects documented from the time of its 1998 construction," according to a report posted on the website of the group Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that covers energy issues.

That spill in Wisconsin "blew just like an oil well," reported one witness of the accident.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a prepared statement, chastised the company, saying, "Accidents, like the one in Wisconsin, are absolutely unacceptable."

In July, before the most recent blowout in Wisconsin, the National Wildlife Federation released a report slamming Enbridge, saying the company was responsible for more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010.

The company responded by saying the environmental group's report was "irresponsible," and that it contained numerous errors and misrepresentations.

A week after that report was issued, the Wisconsin accident occurred, dumping more than 50,000 gallons of oil into the environment.

Beth Wallace, regional outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor, tells News Hits that what's particularly disconcerting is that the company is moving ahead with plans to expand the capacity of its 6B pipeline through Michigan in order to pump more Canadian "tar sands" oil through its system.

By doing this expansion on a piecemeal basis, she explains, the company is attempting to avoid the sort of regulatory oversight that would accompany construction of a new pipeline. 

The company touts the effort, saying the new pipe being installed is an upgrade, and will provide more safety. 

But environmentalists such as Wallace are concerned that the potential effects of tar sands oil on pipelines have not been adequately evaluated. She and others say this oil is both more corrosive and toxic than other forms of oil, and therefore poses risks that aren't being taken into account as the company moves ahead with plans to transport more of it through the state — including to the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit. 

Company officials pooh-pooh the notion that tar sands oil is inherently more dangerous to its pipelines than other forms of crude oil it transports. 

Maybe they are right. 

The Wisconsin spill apparently didn't involve tar sands oil. 

Which means that the real danger is in the way this company runs its operations.