A lot of attention has been paid to TransCanada, the company that owns the Keystone pipeline that has gotten such controversy, but more people should also know about Enbridge, the other big Canadian oil pipeline company that has had big problems with spills. Here’s a video that makes fun of their proposed Northern Gateway project, which would carry tar sands oil to the Pacific coast of Canada to hit the world market.
Almost exactly two years ago, Enbridge’s Lakehead 6B pipeline burst near Marshall, Michigan, sending almost a million gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. I was the editor of the Michigan Messenger at the time and our two brilliant reporters, Todd Heywood and Eartha Melzer, did some amazing investigative work on the story over the next several months. The spill was a disaster in every conceivable way.
The EPA and Enbridge launched a major containment and cleanup effort, but they were hampered by the fact that the company never told anyone that the oil flowing through that pipeline was not conventional crude but was diluted bitumin — that is, tar sands oil. In fact, the MSDS sheets that the EPA state agencies were working off were for conventional crude oil. Why does this matter? Because tar sands oil reacts very differently in the environment than regular crude oil.
It was Eartha’s reporting that discovered that it was tar sands oil. It was also her reporting that prompted the cleanup agencies to test for heavy metal contamination in water and soil samples, because tar sands oil has much higher levels of toxic metals. They didn’t even know that was the case so they didn’t know they should be doing those tests.
It was Todd’s reporting that uncovered the fact that one of the cleanup contractors was using undocumented workers and forcing them to work in unsafe conditions with little concern for health and safety, for little pay (and paid under the table, of course). And that tar sands oil creates hundreds of false pressure readings in pipelines that prevent operators from knowing when they’ve got a leak until long after it begins.
All of this was entirely avoidable, if the company had taken safety and compliance seriously. Enbridge was recently fined a record $3.7 million by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for 24 “violations of its hazardous liquid pipeline safety regulations related to integrity maintenance, failure to follow operation and management procedures, and reporting and operator qualification requirements.”