NTSB Releases Report on Enbridge Oil Spill


The National Transportation Safety Board has finally released its report on the July, 2010 spill of over 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River here in Michigan. The result is exactly what our reporting at the Michigan Messenger had established long ago, though in even more detail — that the company that owns the pipeline, Enbridge, could have prevented the spill if they’d wanted to do so. My friend and former colleague Todd Heywood has the details.

The federal agency determined that the rupture of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline, which released more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into wetlands and waterways in July of 2010, occurred at a point where the company had identified cracks in 2005. Those cracks, left unaddressed, led to the rupture, the agency has determined.

In addition to faulting Enbridge, investigators also cited ineffective regulatory oversight and action by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency within the Department of Transportation that oversees pipeline safety.

“As you heard, this accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps made by Enbridge. But, there is also regulatory culpability,” NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said in her closing statement. “Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is 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.” …

Long-neglected cracks at the rupture location were key to the investigators’ findings.

While the cracks were identified in 2005, they were “misclassified” by Enbridge’s integrity management team, said NTSB investigator Matthew Fox. This misclassification “resulted in the defect remaining in the pipeline unabated until the rupture.”

The misclassification was the result of not combining all available information about the feature, Fox said. He said Enbridge had done an ultrasonic study of the wall thickness of the pipeline in 2004, and a crack analysis in 2005. Taken together, the results of these tests should have raised safety concerns. But Enbridge integrity management procedures failed to combine the data from the two tests, Fox told the NTSB.

“Had Enbridge given due consideration to the threat expectations, the crack would have been identified and excavated and the rupture likely avoided,” Fox said.

“The assessment was flawed,” said Matt Nicholson, lead NTSB investigator. “In fact, they used a wall thickness that was 14 percent greater than it actually was.” …

Operators in the control room of Enbridge’s pipelines in Canada also contributed to the extent of the rupture, according to investigators. They ignored warnings, misread alarms, and attempted to restart the line twice before the rupture was identified. Those two restart attempts resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional gallons of oil being pushed out of the pipeline.

In her opening remarks, Hersman said, “Learning about Enbridge’s poor handling of the rupture, you can’t help but think of the Keystone Kops.”

A perfect reference, since this is the same tar sands oil that will flow through the Keystone XL pipeline, owned by TransCanada. Hersman nailed it here:

“Safety is a commitment. It is a requirement. It must be a way of doing business and not just a slogan. If companies commit to safety with the same vigor that they pursue profits, then we will see integrity management programs with real integrity.”

You can read the full report here.

Comments

  1. bachalon says

    The talk of safety and regulation reminds me of “Better Off Ted” where the company spends money to tell people that they donate to charity and such.

  2. roggg says

    If you want these companies to make safety a priority, you need to make it prohibitively expensive to have this sort of mishap in terms of footing the bill for cleanup AND instituting whatever punitive measures are needed to make cutting corners a revenue neutral prospect at best. IMO.

  3. says

    But JOBS! MONEY! ECONOMY!

    Even here in the Great Oily Whitish North, even in the provincial home of the environmental nightmare, we’re inundated with pro-tar sands (sorry, “oil sands” because it sounds nicer) propaganda. I can just imagine how much they’re spending outside of the province and country.

  4. says

    Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse.

    Yeah, that was how the Republicans “regulated” the financial sector too, and look how well that worked out for everyone.

    These asshats should have brought the environmentalists in on the design, instead of mindlessly demonizing them — that would have given them a better pipeline, just like it did in Alaska.

  5. unbound says

    What? A for-profit corporation monitoring themselves and telling themselves to lose profits by spending money on fixing things? I can’t imagine how that could go wrong…

  6. d cwilson says

    I can’t help thinking of how many other businesses and communities depend on the Kalamazoo River and how badly their economic well-being was harmed due to the lack of “job-killing regulations” being enforced. Why is the negative economic impact of a spill like this never included in the cost/benefit calculations? How many times do we have to see a spill made all but inevitable when companies like Enbridge or BP are allowed to get away with cutting corners on safety year after year?

  7. jayhawk says

    Self-regulation itself is not necessarily a problem when dealing with for-profit companies, although it would not be my first choice. When dealing with for-profit companies, the key is to make the desired behavior the more profitable behavior. So as Roggg discusses above, self-regulation can work if it is more profitable to operate a safe and secure pipeline than one that is not. To work, the liability of spills HAS to be more expensive than maintaining a safe and secure pipeline.

    The problem is if the rules do not make this true and it is NOT more profitable to operate a safe and secure pipeline, this is what you get.

    A for-profit company should want to repair cracks because it is the best thing for their bottom line. It is always easier to do the right thing when it is also more profitable.

  8. says

    I haven’t got time to read a report that, in all likelihood will not be read by anyone at the offending company’s headquarters (except for inside legal counsel who will be looking for escape hatches). I am guessing that there is no way to accurately assess the costs of remediation and repay those whose livelihoods, health and safety have been compromised. I also will guess that even if such a thing was possible the offenders would either not be charged for the actual cost or they would simply declare bankruptcy to avoid paying.

  9. unbound says

    @jayhawk – I agree completely.

    And the reason that the penalties are not stiff enough is that our government is far too heavily influenced by those corporations. We need to recognize corporate lobbying for what it is…corruption of our government.

  10. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    democommie says:

    “… I also will guess that even if such a thing was possible the offenders … would simply declare bankruptcy to avoid paying.”

    I’m not necessarily entirely opposed to that. If the company is publically owned, stockholders would be pretty pissed if they lost their money because the board members weren’t spending money on prophylactic measures to prevent the spills in the first place. The problem is in the part that I removed from your quote, “… would either not be charged for the actual cost or …” and as unbound said, “our government is far too heavily influenced by those corporations. We need to recognize corporate lobbying for what it is…corruption of our government.”

    The thing about “job killing regulations” is that if everyone has to follow them, it’s just a cost of doing business. It’s when only the companies that want to, follow them (as Libertarians want), that it becomes a burden on the conscientious companies.

  11. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    And of course, I acknowledge that my suggestion about letting companies declare bankruptcy will result in some spills occurring, but I think that it may help prevent them in the long run.

  12. says

    Conservatives are so enthusiastic about the death penalty. Since companies are people, why can’t they receive the death penalty? Revoke their charter. Unless they would prefer to accept 100% liability.

  13. says

    “The thing about “job killing regulations” is that if everyone has to follow them, it’s just a cost of doing business. It’s when only the companies that want to, follow them (as Libertarians want), that it becomes a burden on the conscientious companies.”

    I don’t really think that most companies (any?) would willingly put themselves in that sort of disadvantaged position.

  14. dingojack says

    “We need to recognize corporate lobbying for what it is…corruption of our government”.

    But they would argue:
    “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, and since Citizens United affirmed that corporations are people for 1st Amendment purposes…

    Of course I don’t agree, but that’s what the court ruled.

    [Disclaimer: IANAL]

    Dingo

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