Enbridge, regulators faulted in Michigan oil spill

LANSING -- The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday said the massive oil spill that contaminated nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan could have been avoided.

The federal agency determined that the rupture of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline, which released more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into wetlands and waterways in July of 2010, occurred at a point where the company had identified cracks in 2005. Those cracks, left unaddressed, led to the rupture, the agency has determined.

In addition to faulting Enbridge, investigators also cited ineffective regulatory oversight and action by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency within the Department of Transportation that oversees pipeline safety.

“As you heard, this accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps made by Enbridge. But, there is also regulatory culpability,” NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said in her closing statement. “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.”

Investigators shared the determinations of their nearly two-year investigation with the five-member board at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Following the presentation, the board voted unanimously to adopt the investigators’ determination of cause as well as a series of 19 recommendations on how to prevent such accidents in the future.

In a preliminary report, investigators cited “pervasive organizational failures” at Enbridge, including:

Deficient integrity management procedures, which allowed well-documented crack defects in corroded areas to propagate until the pipeline failed.

Inadequate training of control center personnel, which allowed the rupture to remain undetected for 17 hours and through two startups of the pipeline.

Insufficient public awareness and education, which allowed the release to continue for nearly 14 hours after the first notification of an odor to local emergency response agencies.

The report also added that PHMSA’s weak regulation and ineffective oversight contributed to the accident and to the severity of the environmental damage.

Long-neglected cracks at the rupture location were key to the investigators’ findings.

While the cracks were identified in 2005, they were “misclassified” by Enbridge’s integrity management team, said NTSB investigator Matthew Fox. This misclassification “resulted in the defect remaining in the pipeline unabated until the rupture.”

The misclassification was the result of not combining all available information about the feature, Fox said. He said Enbridge had done an ultrasonic study of the wall thickness of the pipeline in 2004, and a crack analysis in 2005. Taken together, the results of these tests should have raised safety concerns. But Enbridge integrity management procedures failed to combine the data from the two tests, Fox told the NTSB.

“Had Enbridge given due consideration to the threat expectations, the crack would have been identified and excavated and the rupture likely avoided,” Fox said.

“The assessment was flawed," said Matt Nicholson, lead NTSB investigator. "In fact, they used a wall thickness that was 14 percent greater than it actually was."

During questioning from Hersman, Nicholson further noted that findings from previous ruptures had not been integrated into Enbridge policies and procedures.

"It's clear to us the lessons are being lost," Nicholson said.

Operators in the control room of Enbridge’s pipelines in Canada also contributed to the extent of the rupture, according to investigators. They ignored warnings, misread alarms, and attempted to restart the line twice before the rupture was identified. Those two restart attempts resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional gallons of oil being pushed out of the pipeline.

In her opening remarks, Hersman said, “Learning about Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops.”

The NTSB report is likely to lead to new regulatory action by PHMSA in overseeing pipeline operations in the the U.S.

PHMSA proposed the largest regulatory fine in its history against Enbridge earlier this month -- $3.7 million. Enbridge has already spent over $800 million on clean up efforts, Hersman said, noting that was five times the amount ever spent on an inland spill clean up. The EPA reports clean up efforts have already removed over 1.1 million gallons of oil from the river.

Beth Wallace, community outreach regional coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation, says the NTSB findings show Enbridge and PHMSA have failed the public.

“Enbridge and PHMSA have failed integrity management programs that need a complete overhaul. This important point emphasizes that they should not be allowed to move forward with any new pipeline projects until they can ensure their current infrastructure is properly managed,” Wallace told The American Independent. “The NTSB investigation proves that Enbridge is not learning from their past mistakes. NWF has not seen proof they have learned from this disaster, either. We would like all their pipelines inspected by a 3rd party, line 6B [the pipeline that ruptured] shut down and their installation of a new line denied until solid evidence is provided that they have adapted all of NTSB's recommendations, including revised response plans.”

For complete coverage of the spill, visit the archives of The American Independent News Network’s publication, The Michigan Messenger, here.

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