Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press, July 10 2012
WASHINGTON – The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board this morning said Enbridge Energy Partners knew about the defect that led to a massive oil spill in south-central Michigan five years before it occurred but failed to do anything about it.
• Complete coverage: Oil spill in Michigan
Opening a hearing on the pipeline spill near Marshall in July 2010, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said an investigation into the rupture of the 30-inch pipeline revealed several concerns, including a lack of regulatory oversight and a delay on the part of Enbridge to respond to the spill led to “significant” environmental damage.
She also said that at the time of the spill, Enbridge’s closest oil spill response contractor was out of state and more than 10 hours away.
“Pipeline operators are required to have an integrity management program, which continually assesses and addresses the safety risk on their pipelines, particularly those in high-consequence areas,” Hersman said. “In 2005, Enbridge detected the very defect that led to this failure … Yet for five years, they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the rupture site – and the problem festered.”
The Free Press first reported in 2010 that Enbridge inspectors had detected problems along Line 6B but not addressed them in the years before the rupture.
NTSB’s lead investigator, Matt Nicholson, said the defects at the site were misidentified as problems that didn’t require immediate remediation in 2005. According to the investigators, a contractor for Enbridge – which had inspected the pipe – found what it determined to be “crack-like” features on that segment of pipe, but made that determination only after a supervisor overruled a junior analyst who through the inspection showed a “crack field.” If it had been deemed a crack field, it would have required an excavation under Enbridge’s rules.
NTSB investigators also said a “culture of deviance” led control center operators for Enbridge in Edmonton, Alberta, to deviate from a company rule that the pipeline should be shut down if, after 10 minutes of receiving a signal of a problem on the line, a reason for the problem could not be ascertained. It was 17 hours after the initial signal that the pipeline was finally shut down.
More than 800,000 gallons – and possibly as much as one million or more gallons – spilled into Talmadge Creek near Marshall as a result of the rupture. Last week, federal regulators announced a proposed $3.7-million penalty against Enbridge, which would be the largest ever for an onshore pipeline spill.
But Hersman leveled criticism at the pipeline regulatory system as well, saying Enbridge was able to “take advantage of weak regulations for assesing and repairing crack indications, and PHMSA (the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) was ineffective in overseeing Enbridge’s pipeline integrity management programs.”
PHMSA released a statement today saying the NTSB’s recommendations support its own findings regarding Enbridge but didn’t address any specific findings that federal oversight was lacking.
Today’s NTSB hearing came as the agency finalized its a draft report of the causes of the spill, the largest ever in the Midwest. The board also said it would issue more than a dozen new safety recommendations – including those to PHMSA – as a part of the report.
As in last week’s release from PHMSA, Enbridge was called out for not responding to the rupture despite signals that indicated a problem on Line 6B, restarting it twice before shutting it down for good.
“While there have been larger onshore oil spills, in this case, Enbridge Inc. is responsible for the release that has been the most expensive to clean up,” said Hersman, noting that the EPA and Enbridge have put the cost at more than $800-million.
“That is already more than five times the next most costly onshore oil spill,” Hersman said.
The NTSB, as part of its report, will release recommendations for PHMSA to improve pipeline safety review and increase standards for spill response and control center operations inside pipeline companies. Enbridge, in a statement, said it has been “actively working with the NTSB and immediately reviewing and addressing concerns as they have been raised.”
However, the company said it would not comment on specific details of the report until the final report is published, most likely in two to four weeks. But if the questions raised at today’s hearing of the board were any indication, the report is unlikely to change much.
Enbridge said it has already implemented, in 2010 and 2011, “appropriate operatonal and procedural changes based on our own internal investigation” and “will continue to carefully examine the NTSB factual reports to determine whether any further adjustments are appropriate.”
”Enbridge believes that at the time of the accident it met or exceeded all applicable regulator and industry standards in its operations,” the company said.