Enbridge Energy knew of—and ignored—multiple corrosion-fatigue cracks in a Michigan pipeline five years before the line ruptured, unleashing the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.
|Enbridge Energy found corrosion fatigue cracks in the line in 2005 but did not repair them. In 2010, an 80-inch breach in the line ruptured.|
When the line finally ruptured near Marshall, MI, in 2010, the Canadian company offered a “Keystone Kops” response that reflected a “culture of deviance,” ignoring alarms and pumping more oil into the line for 17 hours, the NTSB said Tuesday (July 10) in a synopsis of a devastating report on the disaster.
First detected in 2005, the multiple small cracks in Enbridge’s 30-inch Line B segment steadily spread and linked over the years until they formed a gaping breach more than 80 inches long that gave way on July 25, 2010, spewing more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, the Safety Board concluded.
‘Did Not Have to Happen’
“[For] five years, they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the rupture site —and the problem festered,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB, told reporters.
Ultimately, the spill was caused largely by Enbridge’s lack of maintenance and inadequate response and by ineffective federal oversight—all avoidable factors, Hersman noted.
“This situation,” she said, “did not have to happen.”
|NTSB chair Deborah A.P. Hersman likened Enbridge’s response to the Keystone Kops.|
More than 80% of the estimated 843,444 gallons spilled after initial alarms on the line sounded, the agency said.
The damning conclusions were the second in a week by a federal agency on the disaster and echoed those released earlier by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. On July 2, PHMSA announced a $3.7 million fine and issued a Notice of Probable Violation against Enbridge for the spill.
EPA and Enbridge have estimated the spill's clean-up costs at $800 million.
Like the Safety Board, pipeline regulators found that Enbridge violated its own policies in not addressing cracks that its internal inspections had detected years before the rupture.
Moreover, both agencies noted, when the line finally ruptured, Enbridge employees inexplicably ignored the alarms that sounded and continued to try to restart the operation by pumping in additional crude.
"This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge,” Herman said. “Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment.”
She added: “Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures."
The resulting spill covered hundreds of acres of Michigan wetlands, fouling a creek and a river. More than 300 individuals suffered adverse health effects related to benzene exposure, a toxic component of crude oil, a state health study concluded.
‘Culture of Deviance’
The NTSB accused Enbridge of:
• Inadequate training of control center personnel;
• Failure to accurately assess the structural integrity of the pipeline, including correctly analyzing cracks that required repair;
• Deficient control room operations, leak detection, and environmental response; and
• Systemic flaws in operational decision-making caused by a "culture of deviance" that routinely ignored approved procedures and protocols.
The Safety Board also assailed pipeline regulators, saying the PHMSA’s “weak regulations regarding pipeline assessment and repair criteria” and “cursory review of Enbridge's oil spill response plan” had contributed to the magnitude of the accident.
PHMSA has been widely criticized as being too close to the industry it regulates.
In a written response on its website, Enbridge said it “appreciates the hard work and due diligence” by NTSB and was “immediately reviewing and addressing concerns as they have been raised.”
The company said that NTSB’s reports to date were “generally consistent” with Enbridge’s internal findings, but that it would not comment in detail until the Safety Board issued its final report.
“Enbridge believes that at the time of the accident it met or exceeded all applicable regulatory and industry standards in its operations,” the statement said.
“As a result of our detailed investigation into the accident, and as part of our ongoing continuous improvement efforts, we have taken steps to address lessons learned and make incremental improvements aimed at preventing a similar accident from happening again in the future.”
‘Fox Guarding the Hen House’
As a result of the investigation, the NTSB reiterated one recommendation to PHMSA and issued 17 new safety recommendations to the Department of Transportation, PHMSA, Enbridge, the American Petroleum Institute, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the National Emergency Number Association.
"This accident is a wake-up call to the industry, the regulator, and the public,” said Hersman. “Enbridge knew for years that this section of the pipeline was vulnerable, yet they didn't act on that information.”
She added: "Likewise, for the regulator to delegate too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the hen house. Regulators need regulations and practices with teeth, and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a spill. Not just after."
The full report will be available on NTSB’s website in several weeks.