This Ridiculously Low Oil Spill Fine Is What’s Wrong With Environmental Enforcement

In a July 13, 2011 file photo, cleanup work continues on the Kalamzoo River almost a year after a spill near Marshall, Mich. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOE RAYMOND
In a July 13, 2011 file photo, cleanup work continues on the Kalamzoo River almost a year after a spill near Marshall, Mich. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOE RAYMOND

Six years after spilling more than 27,000 barrels of oil into local rivers, Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership is finally facing the music: a $177 million settlement with the U.S. government.

The music is a little soft.

The settlement covers two spills, but one of them was a doozy. On July 25, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, ultimately spilling 20,000 barrels of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and becoming the largest ever on-shore tar sands oil spill. Tar sands oil, extracted primarily in Canada and piped into and across the United States, is heavy, thick, and mud-like. Unlike most other oils, it sinks, making it even more difficult to clean up. After the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge had to dredge the river and then replant native vegetation. At the five-year mark of the spill, the river’s ecology had not fully returned.

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“The fines amount to a slap on the wrist, far from what a historic spill like this should garner,” Anthony Swift, Canada director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “This will do little to force the pipeline industry to think about spills — even historically massive ones — as a cost of doing business.”

Michigan River Remains Poisoned By Oil Five Years After Massive SpillClimate by CREDIT: Five years ago, a pipeline carrying crude oil from Canadian tar sands ruptured in Michigan, spilling…thinkprogress.orgThe company will pay $62 million in civil fines, $5.4 million in unreimbursed expenses the federal government incurred. The remaining $110 million will go to spill prevention and response measures.

Enbridge had previously agreed with Michigan to pay $75 million for the spill.

But the truly shocking thing might be that all Enbridge faces is costs.

According to the government’s complaint, “Although the [pipe] Line 6B rupture triggered numerous alarms in Enbridge’s control room, Enbridge failed to recognize a pipeline had ruptured until at least 17 hours later. In the meantime, Enbridge had restarted Line 6B… pumping additional oil into the ruptured pipeline causing additional discharges of oil into the environment.”

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That means Enbridge had a detection system in place and had the ability to know that the pipeline ruptured. Someone at Enbridge — or someones, most likely — chose to ignore the alarm and continue pumping oil.

“Six years have passed with questions unanswered and concerns remain,” Susan Connolly, a local Michigan mother whose children suffered rashes as a result of the Kalamazoo spill, said in a statement. “The fines related to the Clean Water Act should not be in the form of a ‘settlement’ discussed and agreed to between the agencies and the at fault party. The maximum penalty should be ordered, criminal penalties assessed, and a Michigan Pipeline Trust created.”

For its part, Enbridge says things have gotten better.

“Over the past six years, we’ve intensified our focus on the safety and integrity of our systems enterprise-wide and we’ve invested significantly in our people, processes, equipment and technology,” Al Monaco, Enbridge’s president and CEO, said in a statement announcement. “Across Enbridge, our team is galvanized by our number one priority of safety and reliability of our systems and the protection of the public and the environment.”

But as with any safety program, it is only as good as the operators. If safety and spill prevention are not a priority, there is no system on earth that can keep oil contained.

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“We know when it comes to tar sands pipelines, it’s not a question of if they’ll spill, but when,” Lena Moffitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. “No amount of crude oil being transported near our communities or the Great Lakes is safe and the spill in Kalamazoo serves as a stark reminder of that reality.”

The other spill covered in the settlement occurred the same year in Romeoville, Illinois, when more than 6,400 barrels of oil was released from another Enbridge pipeline, suggesting that Enbridge has, or at least had, a pipeline safety problem.

Earlier this month, Enbridge was given six month by Canadian regulators to look into whether it had used “defective” parts in pipeline construction. The potential defects are “ticking time bombs,” according to a report by Canada’s National Observer.

Meanwhile, the U.S. settlement serves to perpetuate the transport of tar sands oil. Enbridge has already replaced the line that ruptured, investing in 285 miles of new pipeline.

An inquiry to Enbridge was not immediately returned Wednesday.