Enbridge oil spills in Michigan, Illinois raising questions from congressional panel

By Tim Martin, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Enbridge oil spills draw scrutiny from Congress

LANSING, Mich. — A Canadian company’s oil pipeline troubles in the U.S., including large spills this summer in Michigan and Illinois, could influence tougher regulatory proposals from Congress.

The U.S. House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has scheduled a Wednesday hearing in Washington primarily to look into a spill that sent an estimated 820,000 to 1 million gallons spewing from an Enbridge Inc. pipeline near Marshall, Mich., in late July, polluting the Kalamazoo River.

Committee members also may discuss an Enbridge spill reported within the last week in suburban Chicago and ask regulators about a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas pipeline explosion that killed at least four people in suburban San Francisco.

The committee was researching new pipeline safety legislation even before this summer’s accidents, which have caused Midwest gasoline prices to surge and raised questions about a nationwide system of aging pipelines that carry gas and hazardous liquids through communities and under rivers and lakes.

John LaForge, who’s been living in a hotel since oil from an Enbridge pipeline contaminated his Michigan property in late July, wants Congress to send a tough message.

“Enbridge has had leak after leak after leak and they’re not getting fixed and the pipe’s getting older by the day,” said LaForge, who says Enbridge is in the process of buying his Marshall-area home. “They’ve got a ton of work to do.”

Enbridge will face questions from members of Congress about its damage claims process, the quality of its leak detection and spill response systems. The company said it detected and reported the Marshall spill July 26, but 911 calls were placed to law enforcement agencies complaining of gas smells in the area the previous night.

A preliminary timeline from the National Transportation Safety Board, contained in a document released by the congressional commission Tuesday, says Enbridge experienced an “abrupt pressure drop” at a Marshall area pump station about 6 p.m. July 25. The drop triggered an alarm received by a pipeline controller in Edmonton, Alberta, and the Marshall station was temporarily shut down. Shortly after the pipeline restarted at 4 a.m. July 26, the controller received alarms indicating flow imbalances and the line was stopped, restarted and shut down again.

A local gas utility notified Enbridge shortly before 11:30 a.m. July 26 that oil was found in a creek feeding the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge verified the spill and officially reported it to the National Response Center about two hours later, after being placed on hold during an earlier call.

Federal regulators at Wednesday’s hearing will be asked about a system that allows companies to do their own inspections and often delay repairs of defects classified as minor. The pipeline that ruptured in Michigan — which runs from Griffth, Ind. to Sarnia, Ontario — has several potential flaws or so-called “anomalies” federal regulators say need to be investigated and possibly repaired before it can restart.

“My objective is to really use this accident as a case study,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat from Michigan who represents the area affected by the spill. “I want to look at the discretion the regulatory agency has and whether that’s too much, whether there’s too much leniency on a pipeline company that has identified defects.”

Schauer said he wants to make sure the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s regulatory arm, has the “tools and resources” it needs to do its oversight job. He and fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota also have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether Enbridge or any affiliates strong-armed residents in the oil spill area to sign forms preventing them from suing in exchange for air purifiers or payment of hotel and other expenses.

Federal regulators have cited Enbridge or affiliates for more than two dozen enforcement actions since 2002. In addition to the spills this summer, Enbridge was fined $2.4 million last month related to a 2007 accident that killed two employees in Minnesota. An investigation found Enbridge failed to safely perform repair.

Enbridge has estimated the Michigan cleanup and related efforts could cost an estimated $300 million to $400 million, not counting any fines that might come from federal regulators. The cause of the spill remains under investigation.

Enbridge and its Houston-based affiliate, Enbridge Energy Partners, has defended its safety practices. Enbridge said in e-mailed statement Tuesday that CEO Patrick Daniel “intends to reiterate that the safety of the communities in which Enbridge operates, the lands its pipelines traverse and the people who live and work along the pipeline system is our highest priority” during the congressional hearing.

Enbridge says it spent nearly $150 million in the past year on safety and integrity programs including corrosion control and pipeline inspections. On Tuesday, the company restarted a pipeline it had shut down a day earlier to investigate a possible low-level leak near Buffalo, N.Y. Enbridge said tests found no leak but that the site would be monitored.

Federal oversight of the nation’s pipeline system was toughened in 2002 after a series of fatal accidents, including a rupture that left three dead in Bellingham, Wash., in 1999 and an explosion that killed 12 near Carlsbad, N.M. in 2000.

The number of accidents classified by federal regulators as “significant” averages roughly 270 to 280 per year. More than a dozen people die and more than 50 are injured in a typical year in the U.S. because of pipeline accidents.

Federal data show more than half the nation’s major hazardous liquid and natural gas transmission pipelines were installed before 1970, according to a report from the Pipeline Safety Trust, an advocacy group based in Bellingham. The Enbridge lines that broke in Michigan and Illinois both were constructed in the late 1960s.

The oil and gas industry says age is not necessarily a factor if pipelines are properly inspected and maintained. But pipeline safety groups say that changes if maintenance is spotty.

“What we’re finding is the companies aren’t always doing everything they ought to be able to do,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “A lot of the pipelines that are failing do seem to be the older ones.”

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