Company That Spilled 20,000 Barrels Of Oil Into A Michigan River Is Reopening Its Pipeline

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An oil pipeline that spilled over 20,000 barrels into a Michigan river has been rebuilt and will re-open for business on May 1, InsideClimate News reports.

The pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc., goes from Griffith to Ortonville in Michigan, cutting across over 100 wetlands, streams and rivers in its 235-mile path. It will be able to carry up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day, including the heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands. Another 50-mile segment is scheduled to be opened in early fall.

The pipeline is a $1.3 billion replacement for a 46-year-old pipe that followed the same path. In 2010, a rupture in that original pipe dumped over 834,000 gallons (or more than 20,000 barrels) of heavy Canadian crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. The spill spread through 40 miles of the river, and leached into the surrounding wetlands. At $800 million, it was the costliest on-shore spill in United States history at the time.

“We have to live with the pipeline and all of the what-ifs,” David Gallagher, whose house sits right near the pipeline’s route, told InsideClimate News. “We hope everything is going to be everything they say it will be, but we just don’t know.”

The Department of Transportation wound up imposing a record-setting $3.7 million civil penalty on Enbridge for the Kalamazoo spill, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) faulted the company for “pervasive organizational failures” and a “complete breakdown of safety.” The NTSB said the company noticed cracks in the pipe due to corrosion and fatigue as early as 2010, but failed to report them — and it faulted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency charged with overseeing the safety and integrity of the nation’s pipelines, for “weak federal regulations.”

Four years later, Enbridge insists its operation protocols have been revised since the spill and reviewed by federal agencies, and that its monitoring technology, technical support, and staff have all been bulked up. “Enbridge is part of an energy pipeline industry that is committed to the highest safety standards in the construction and operation of our facilities,” said Larry Springer, a company spokesman, in an email to InsideClimate News.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization, said that even new pipelines can see a number of little leaks, though rarely suffer major failures.

PHMSA has also redoubled its efforts, issuing a record $9.78 million in civil penalties against pipeline operators in 2013, and brandishing “tougher enforcement” thanks to “internal improvements to its pipeline inspection and tracking procedures.” PHMSA has resolved 85 percent of its 2013 cases so far, which is lower than its recent rates — 92 percent in 2012 and 95 percent in 2011 — but higher than the annual rates between 2004 and 2010. It’s also upped its maximum pipeline fine from $100,000 to $200,000 after receiving authorization to do so in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011.

However, Beth Wallace, an outreach consultant for the National Wildlife Federation, told InsideClimate news that PHMSA still hasn’t finalized a host of other new safety rules and standards.

“There has been very little progress made toward strengthening rules and regulations since the spill four years ago,” Wallace said. “So allowing [Enbridge] to nearly double the size of their pipeline before critical rulemaking comes out of PHMSA is putting the cart before the horse.”