Enbridge acted like ‘Keystone Kops’: official
July 11, 2012
Peter O’Neil, Edmonton Journal
The head of a U.S. independent watchdog has urged Canadian authorities to make sure Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., found culpable Tuesday in a “tragic and needless” 2010 spill in Michigan, has learned its lesson before letting it construct the proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline to the B.C. coast.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Debbie Hersman made the comment after outlining how Enbridge, during and after a disastrous 2010 pipeline rupture in Michigan, acted like the “Keystone Kops” in the face of the most costly onshore oil spill in United States history.
The scathing NTSB report said more than 840,000 gallons of heavy bitumen crude oil from Alberta spilled in the Michigan wetlands, a local creek and the Kalamazoo River, resulting in more than $800 million in damages.
The spill affected the health of 320 people and nearly 4,000 animals, while permanently displacing some residents in the Kalamazoo River area. The cleanup continues.
Hersman noted the company failed to take action despite knowing since 2004 that the pipeline had corrosion problems, and since 2005 that there were cracks in the area of the 2010 rupture.
Hersman said Enbridge mishandled what could have been a relatively minor spill due to “pervasive systemic problems” within the company as well as poor U.S. regulatory oversight.
“This accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps made by Enbridge,” she said. “But there is also regulatory culpability.”
She said companies have too much authority to police themselves, “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.”
Hersman also said the company failed to learn its lessons from major U.S. spills in 1991 and 2002 and in 2007 in Canada.
Hersman was asked during a news conference how she views Enbridge’s plans to build two 1,177-kilometre pipelines from the Alberta oilsands region through the Rockies to the West Coast.
A joint National Energy Board-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel is currently assessing the project, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has recently given itself the authority to be the final arbiter on decisions by the quasiindependent NEB.
“It will be very important for anybody who is providing approvals to new operations to make sure they have the appropriate safety systems in place, and that the regulator has the tools that they need to do the appropriate oversight,” Hersman said.
She sounded flabbergasted as she described Tuesday how Enbridge officials at the Edmonton pipeline control centre failed for more than 17 hours to realize that alarms and total pressure loss were clear indications of a massive spill caused by a pipeline fracture.
“When we were examining Enbridge’s poor handling to their response to this rupture, you can’t help but think about the Keystone Kops,” Hersman said, referring to the fictional incompetent policemen in silent film comedies.
“Why didn’t they recognize what was happening and what took so long?”
Enbridge chief executive officer Pat Daniel, who was in the NTSB’s Washington, D.C., conference room, issued a statement that didn’t acknowledge company wrongdoing.
“We believe that the experienced personnel involved in the decisions made at the time of the release were trying to do the right thing,” Daniel said.
“As with most such incidents, a series of unfortunate events and circumstances resulted in an outcome no one wanted.”
Another senior Enbridge official, Stephen Wuori, president liquids pipelines, said safety is at the “core” of operations and that Enbridge intends to learn its lessons so a similar an incident isn’t repeated.
He said the company’s investigation of the 2010 incident has already resulted in “numerous enhancements to their processes, procedures and training as a result of the findings of the investigation, including in the control centre. Incident prevention, detection and response have also been enhanced.”
A company official later confirmed some employees were disciplined or terminated as a result.
Northern Gateway critics said Enbridge doesn’t deserve another chance to learn its lesson before proceeding with the proposed 1,177-kilometre twin pipelines from the Edmonton area through the Rockies to Kitimat on the B.C. coast.
Peter Julian, the federal NDP’s natural resources critic, said the NTSB’s call for tougher regulatory oversight of pipelines in the U.S. coincides with the Harper government’s relaxation of environmental rules in order to encourage pipeline projects and other natural resource developments.
“This is a real wakeup call for Canadians, and especially British Columbians,” Julian said. “We’re facing a situation where Bill C-38 is actually reducing regulatory oversight even prior to the construction of any new pipelines. We have a situation which is exactly what (NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman) describes as the ‘fox guarding the henhouse.’”
He said an incident along the lines of the Michigan disaster would devastate the B.C. tourism and fisheries sectors.
Environmental groups also said the report sends a strong signal to Canadians.
Patricia Best, spokeswoman for federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, noted the recent budget included funding to sharply increase inspections, audits and fines involving federally regulated pipelines. She also noted Canadian and U.S. regulatory regimes are much different.
Among other findings: The rupture was caused by a sharp rise in internal pressure during a regular shutdown that opened an area of the pipeline where there were “corrosion fatigue cracks” that built up under polyethylene tape that had become detached from the pipeline.
The NTSB criticized Enbridge’s pipeline “integrity management program” as well as its poorly trained Edmonton operations centre staff, who misinterpreted alarms during the spill so badly that they twice started up the pipeline flow. Those two startups caused 81 per cent of the total release.
While Enbridge had a rule following a major 1991 spill to shut down pipelines no later than 10 minutes after notification of an unexplained problem, a “culture” developed that led to this rule being ignored.