The fourth anniversary of the Enbridge Line 6B rupture and spill into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River is today, July 25, although the source of the spill was not determined until July 26. We wanted to take a bit of a retrospective look at the spill and its aftermath to see what, if anything, has changed about pipeline safety, what has been learned, and what remains the same as ever.
For a reminder of the circumstances of the spill itself, we highly recommend a review of the full NTSB report on the incident. For the sake of brevity, we quote here only the Executive Summary:
On Sunday, July 25, 2010, at 5:58 p.m., eastern daylight time, a segment of a 30-inch-diameter pipeline (Line 6B), owned and operated by Enbridge Incorporated (Enbridge) ruptured in a wetland in Marshall, Michigan. The rupture occurred during the last stages of a planned shutdown and was not discovered or addressed for over 17 hours. During the time lapse, Enbridge twice pumped additional oil (81 percent of the total release) into Line 6B during two startups; the total release was estimated to be 843,444 gallons of crude oil. The oil saturated the surrounding wetlands and flowed into the Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Local residents self-evacuated from their houses, and the environment was negatively affected. Cleanup efforts continue as of the adoption date of this report, with continuing costs exceeding $767 million. About 320 people reported symptoms consistent with crude oil exposure. No fatalities were reported.
As we look back, here’s what we see:
- Enbridge has now spent something over a billion dollars cleaning up the area affected by the spill, and the work, while reportedly nearing completion, is ongoing. Much of the difficulty in cleaning up the spill resulted from the fact that the oil spilled was a variety of diluted bitumen, much of which sinks in water, particularly when exposed to the sediments and currents found in a flooding river system. Scientists working on the cleanup acknowledge that there will always be some oil in the sediments. As sediment is disturbed, it is likely there will continue to be some oil sheen on the water.
- PHMSA issued a Corrective Action Order (CAO) on the entire Lakehead system (of which Line 6B is a part), but in spite of apparent concerns sufficient to cause PHMSA to require an ongoing third party auditor of Enbridge’s operations, the public has not been told of the identity of that auditor, any recommendations that may have been made, or the degree of success in implementing any such suggestions.
- Enbridge chose not to try to repair and restart the pipeline known as 6B that ruptured. After many integrity digs along the line, each of which inconvenienced the landowner whose property was dug up, Enbridge announced instead that it would “replace” Line 6B, by which they meant that they would put a second, larger pipeline in the same right of way: exchanging the use of a 30 inch line for a 36 inch line and more than doubling the daily throughput capacity, while leaving the old Line 6B in the ground, with no current plans for its use. Thus began three years and counting of disruption, inconvenience, uncertainty, noise, vibration, stress and mess for the residents of the Line 6B right of way. The experience of these landowners and those along other newly constructed lines has raised questions of whether land agents (employees or contractors) should be bound by a code of ethics, how to increase the on-the ground oversight there is by PHMSA of new pipeline construction, and how to provide landowners with better recourse than paying a lawyer and resorting to court to enforce the terms of easements and other contracts with operators.
- Many people in the area complained of health effects in the immediate aftermath of the spill, with a significant number complaining of chronic effects. The health departments and first responders were entirely unprepared to answer questions, provide advice or make immediate evacuation decisions, largely because they lacked access to the necessary air quality monitors in sufficient numbers to provide the necessary data. PHMSA does not require operators to include anything about air quality monitoring equipment availability in their spill response planning regulations, and to our knowledge has no plans to do so. An astounding bit of reporting following the Exxon spill in Mayflower, Arkansas also pointed out the lack of any common regulatory maximum standard for benzene exposure to the public, a regulatory vacuum that continues today.
- Of the many safety concerns and formal recommendations that the NTSB pointed out in its report, precious few, if any, of them have been resolved. PHMSA has yet to propose any substantive new safety rules for hazardous liquid lines or the spill response plans they must produce, landowners have suffered for years, residents’ health has been affected for years, and the environmental damage done is still under repair. Moreover, because PHMSA won’t make public its interactions with Enbridge following the issuance of the CAO on the Lakehead system, the public doesn’t know what changes the regulator or third party auditor has requested or how the operator has responded. That is, how will the public know whether PHMSA and the operator have truly resolved the “systemic deficiency in the company’s approach to safety” identified and enumerated in the NTSB report?
But for those of you who insist on finding some hope, some hint of a silver lining, here’s our list:
- Many of the political leaders in the Great Lakes region have been made aware of the vulnerability of the region to spills from the many liquid pipelines running through the region, Michigan’s Attorney General has established a task force on pipeline safety (but it has yet to produce any meaningful action) and several members of the Congressional delegation have expressed concern about various aspects of the safety of liquid lines in the region.
- Several states (MN, NH and an expansion in CA) – having witnessed the Enbridge spill, recognized, as the NTSB did, the weaknesses in the PHMSA spill response planning program and the vulnerability of their own resources – have enacted legislation that will result in state rules requiring effective spill response planning for liquid pipelines under the Oil Pollution Act. We hope these states will follow the lead of the State of Washington and allow for public notice and comment on these plans before they are approved.
- Congress paid enough attention to the concerns about transporting diluted bitumen through pipelines previously used for conventional crude oil that they directed PHMSA to complete a study about the risks of doing so in the last program reauthorization. PHMSA contracted with the National Academy of Science to produce a first phase of the required study in 2012. The scope of that study was unnecessarily narrow, only reviewed existing data, and did not consider the seriousness of the consequences of dilbit transport. The PHMSA Administrator recently announced that PHMSA will be undertaking a second phase of the study to look at those consequences. We hope that PHMSA will seek and heed public comment on the scope of this second phase so the study can be completed without unnecessary delay from overly constraining the scope a second time.
- The spate of tragic pipeline failures (including San Bruno, Allentown, Philadelphia, Marshall, Mayflower, Harlem and others) has raised the public’s awareness of the risks of pipelines and forced the news media to learn how to report on those risks. For the first time (as far as we know), a Pulitzer Prize was awarded for coverage of a pipeline failure. The Pulitzer committee commended the Inside Climate News team of three reporters for their seven-month investigation and “rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines”. Nationally, media coverage of pipelines has increased dramatically in both volume and quality.
- In a manifestation of an industry habit – the phenomenon we refer to as creating “accidental activists” – the Enbridge spill created a whole bunch of them in the Great Lakes region, two of whom we’re now proud to have on our Board of Directors. We now have four members of our Board with strong ties in the Great Lakes region. We expect this group and others in the region will continue to hold Enbridge and other operators accountable and to raise the profile of pipeline safety issues at home and nationally.