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WASHINGTON — A “tragic and needless” 2010 pipeline rupture in Michigan became exponentially worse after an astonishing 17-hour delay to stop the flow of oil, raising concerns about proposed pipelines from Keystone XL to the Northern Gateway.
Canada’s Enbridge Inc. was in the hot seat Tuesday as regulators in Washington delivered a withering broadside, warning that disasters like the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River will continue until the pipeline industry pursues safety “with the same vigour as they pursue profits.”
Environmental groups on both sides of the border seized upon the findings, calling the report a watershed moment in their efforts to limit wholesale expansion of Alberta oilsands. Likening the Calgary company’s management of the disaster to the “Keystone Cops,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman said Enbridge failed to adequately address well-known corrosion problems as far back as 2005.
Enbridge also twice attempted to restart the flow in aging pipeline 6B after the rupture, ultimately pumping at least 840,000 gallons of diluted Alberta crude into a sensitive Michigan watershed.
A cascade of “human error” ranging from lack of communication between Enbridge and local law enforcement in Michigan to the company’s repeated misreading of vital sensor data to an inept spill response conspired for what would eventually become a billion-dollar cleanup operation, the NTSB said in a draft report adopted at the end of the three-hour hearing in Washington.
The continuing pipeline debate looms large over the upcoming U.S. election, with Republicans hammering President Barack Obama for stalling approval of the Keystone XL line, backed by Enbridge rival Calgary-based TransCanada.
Keystone XL would deliver crude oil from the oilsands in Alberta to Texas, while Enbridge’s Northern Gateway would take crude from Alberta to northern British Columbia, where it would then be loaded on tankers destined for Asia.
In deconstructing the Michigan spill, lead NTSB investigator Matt Nicholson testified that Enbridge was aware of as many as 15,000 defects along line 6B, many stemming from corrosion problems exacerbated by a failing membrane that enwrapped the 1960s-era steel pipe. The company contracted out the job of detecting the worst problems, excavating more than 900 sites to conduct repairs, he said.
But a misinterpretation of data led Enbridge to overlook the site that eventually burst near Marshall, Mich., Nicholson said.
The NTSB findings also faulted regulatory oversight, saying U.S. rules cede too much authority to private companies to self-police — a dynamic akin to “the fox guarding the henhouse,” in the words of board chair Hersman.
But Nicholson emphasized Enbridge was not alone in its approach to safety, saying the company’s systems were not “state of the art, not bottom of the barrel, either.
“When we talked to people in the (Edmonton) control room, we saw a company that was confident they weren’t cutting corners — they believed they had a safe system … they were willing to spend money,” said Nicholson.
But like much of the industry, Enbridge approached safety with a “checklist” mentality, NTSB officials testified, believing that ticking boxes rather than taking a “macro view” and embracing of culture of “continual reassessment” as the best way to absorb lessons from previous spills.
Enbridge faces the prospect of a $3.7 million fine from the U.S. Department of Transportation — a pittance compared to clean up costs and reputational damage.
In a statement Tuesday, Enbridge stressed it has “taken full responsibility for the incident since the beginning” and has already implemented a range of “incremental improvements aimed at preventing a similar accident from happening again in future.”
But the company said it would not comment on specific details of the NTSB’s draft findings until the board issues its final report, expected in the coming weeks.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1224151–enbridge-knew-of-flaws-5-years-before-oil-spill-safety-board