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Lessons from a Billion-Dollar Spill

Monday, May 12, 2014

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Pipeline owners and operators had better learn from the many mistakes that led to a massive Midwestern spill in 2010 or face costly consequences, U.S. regulators are warning.

Pipeline Safety: Lessons Learned from the Release at Marshall, Michigan, an advisory bulletin published April 30 by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, might alternatively be titled, "Do As We Say—Not as Enbridge Energy Did."

Numerous Deficiencies

The advisory bulletin contains a lengthy list of deficiencies that federal investigators identified in Enbridge's maintenance, communications, operations and response programs after a 30-inch company pipeline ruptured at 5:58 p.m. July 25, 2010, in a wetland near Marshall, MI.

Marshall MI oil spill
Photos: EPA

The spill went undetected for more than 17 hours, eventually releasing 843,333 gallons of crude oil into the wetlands, Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

The rupture was not discovered for more than 17 hours, during which time Enbridge operators twice pumped additional oil into the line rather than investigate why the flow had dropped.

The disaster released 843,333 gallons of crude oil into the wetlands, Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, launching a $1+ billion cleanup and remediation project that continues today.

In August 2012, PHMSA levied its largest penalty ever to Enbridge—$3,699,200. Also in 2012, the agency had a record year for proposed pipeline fines and took the second-highest number of enforcement actions against pipeline operators.

Hidden Disbondment

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the break, determined that the probable cause was stress corrosion cracking that grew and coalesced from disbonded polyethylene tape coating.

Beyond the hardware problems, however, were a wealth of training, risk assessment, integrity management and procedural lapses that allowed the spill to spread to disastrous proportions—and without the public's knowledge.

Marshall MI oil spill

Cleanup of the July 2010 spill has cost more than $1 billion to date. Updates are available here.

These are some of the deficiencies highlighted by the new bulletin.

Integrity Management

Federal regulations require operators of gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines to develop a continual process for evaluating pipeline integrity. The dynamic process is supposed to integrate prevoius assessments, data and actions to develop a unique risk profile for each pipeline.

Enbridge did not do that, PHMSA said. For example, it said:

  • After an accidental release in 2007 on a pipeline segment in Saskatchewan, Enbridge changed its crack assessment process. However, it did not retroactively apply that change to other lines, including the ill-fated Marshall segment.
  • Enbridge's response to past IM-related accidents focused on the immediate cause of the accident, without a systematic review of relevant policies and procedures.
  • The risk profile developed for the Marshall line excluded data on key risk factors.
  • Enbridge used a lower safety margin for evaluating crack defects than for evaluating corrosion defects.

Control Center and Training

Among the deficiencies PMSA cited in operations and training:

Marshall MI oil spill

Investigators identified mistakes throughout Enbridge's organization, including the pumping of additional oil into the line after the spill started.

  • Enbridge rapidly expanded its control center operations staff without assessing whether the new personnel would affect safe operations.
  • Control center analysts and operators were not adequately trained, resulting in misinterpreted alarms and data, violation of shutdown procedures, "poor communication and lack of leadership."

Public Awareness/Education

Federal regulations detail notification procedures for emergency responders, municipalities and individuals about pipeline incidents. PHMSA said Enbridge:

  • Failed to "effectively inform the affected public, including citizens and emergency response agencies" about the location of the pipeline and related issues; and
  • Was ineffective in identifying and correcting deficiencies in its public awareness program.

'Proactively Implement Improvements'

The bulletin advises pipeline owners and operators to "evaluate their safety programs and implement any changes to eliminate deficiencies similar to the ones" NTSB identified in Enbridge.

Marshall MI oil spill

Pipeline Safety: Lessons Learned from the Release at Marshall, Michigan, comes with a strong warning for pipeline owners and operators.

"Had existing regulations, guidance, advisories and recommendations regarding these programs been properly acted upon, the consequences of that incident could have been prevented, or at the very least, mitigated."

And in a pointed final warning, the agency said:

"Operators should proactively implement improvements to their pipeline safety programs based on these observations and recommendations, so that the entire industry can benefit from the mistakes of one operator."

   

Tagged categories: Enforcement; Oil and Gas; PHMSA; Pipeline; Regulations

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/12/2014, 10:04 AM)

This demonstrates how ridiculously low PHMSA fines are. Barely higher than the value of the lost product.


Comment from M. Halliwell, (5/12/2014, 11:21 AM)

Hopefully, though, between the clean up costs, the PR disaster and the multiple bulletins this will end up being a wake up call for all pipeline operators to get more proactive about maintenance. Doesn't matter whether it is Enbridge with crude oil here, or the explosions due to natural gas pipeline failures in California...aging infrastructure means a need for maintenance and replacement BEFORE the next preventable disaster happens.


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