News Articles | The Michigan Messenger | Eartha Jane Melzer | August 24, 2010
It's been nearly a month since a rupture in a pipeline operated by Enbridge dumped an estimated million gallons of Canadian tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River system in the worst oil spill in Midwest history, and federal regulators have yet to approve a restart plan for the pipeline.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which rejected an Enbridge restart proposal earlier this month, has declined to estimate when a restart plan may be approved or how long the 190,000 barrel a day pipeline could be out of commission.
"PHMSA will make a decision on the restart plan when we are confident all concerns have been satisfied to ensure safety," an agency spokesperson said. "Inspectors remain on the ground reviewing the work Enbridge is doing. PHMSA engineers are also reviewing inspection data at our offices in Kansas City and Washington, DC. Each review is unique and each incident requires a comprehensive review for ensuring the highest degree of safety before allowing restart."
In recent weeks PHMSA has come under new scrutiny of their pipeline oversight practices. Former regulators and analysts say that the agency is understaffed, does not monitor pipelines and is too close to the pipeline industry. Since the July 26 spill in Marshall, PHMSA has revealed that inspections conducted on the 6B line by Enbridge prior to the leak had revealed 200 "anomalies."
Amidst these growing criticisms, last week the agency issued $2.4 million in fines against Enbridge for previous safety violations.
PHMSA announced that a year long investigation by the agency had determined that Enbridge was responsible for safety violations in connection with a Nov. 28, 2007 explosion that killed two employees on the Lakehead pipeline near Clearbrook, Minnesota.
That investigation found that Enbridge had "failed to safely and adequately perform maintenance and repair activities, clear the designated work area from possible sources of ignition, and hire properly trained and qualified workers."
"Safety is the number one priority of this Department," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the announcement of the fines. "This Department holds pipeline operators accountable for protecting their own workers as well as the health, welfare and safety of American communities where they operate."
An Enbridge spokesman said that the company will review consider the fines and consider filing an appeal.
"The announcement was anticipated," said Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer. "Our concern was the amount of the fine we felt was too high because we acted swiftly to remedy the situations based on our own investigation. "
"We take issue with the conclusions, as presented in the action orders. Our priority is to get to the root of the incident. And as soon as we found out what the root cause in the [Minnesota] incident was, we implemented new training."
Springer says Enbridge had a hearing last year about the fine with PHMSA because they felt the amount was not in line with regulations.
Carl Weimer of the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust said that it is not unusual for PHMSA to take years to assess fines for violations.
"The timing sure is convenient, but I don't see anything in the statement that is out of the norm," Weimer said. "There is little doubt that PHMSA is trying to make sure their ducks are in a row regarding Enbridge, and this may just be one of those ducks they are lining up, perhaps somewhat sooner, than if Enbridge hadn't dumped in the Kalamazoo River."
The National Transportation Safety Board is in the process of investigating the cause of the spill, an investigation that is expected to take 12-18 months.
Last week in a public letter, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow asked PHMSA to explain how it can approve a restart plan before the cause of the leak has been determined.
"In reviewing Enbridge's Restart Plan for Line 6B," the lawmakers asked, "how will PHMSA take into consideration Enbridge's overall safety record when determining whether this line should be put back into service?"
"How can PHMSA assure us and the public that other parts of the pipeline may not have similar problems which could result in another leak, and how does the status of other sections of the pipeline fit into the assessment of future restart plans?"
PHMSA has yet to publicly respond to these questions.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials has scheduled a hearing on the Enbridge spill for Sept. 15.
As the pipeline shutdown continues it is having impact on Enbridge and the network of refineries that process heavy Canadian crude into gasoline and diesel.
Reuters reports that the company has been forced to ration space on the other pipelines that serve the Great Lakes region and Ontario.
Refineries served by the 6B pipeline in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ontario have been forced to seek alternative supplies, and three refineries have cut production because of reductions in the supply of Canadian crude.