WASHINGTON — Birds have emerged from waterways soaked with oil from beak to tail feathers, and officials are calling it the worst spill they’ve ever seen. The air stinks so badly that people have vomited from smelling it while others had to be evacuated from their homes to flee the stench.
The governor called the oil spill response “anemic,” and local officials have accused the oil company of understating the spill by hundreds of thousands of gallons. Meanwhile, federal records show a history of citations and spills, with no one really able to say why the pipe failed or whether similar pipes are safe.
It’s not Louisiana, and this is not BP. This is the Midwest, in Michigan, and the birds aren’t pelicans; they’re swans, loons and geese.
The Michigan pipeline that failed earlier this week is owned by Enbridge, a Canadian company with a history of small spills and at least 30 federal citations for safety and inspection violations since 2002.
Six Enbridge oil pipelines comprise the main arteries (PDF) connecting the tar sands of Alberta with the United States, pumping 1.87 million barrels of oil per day across Northern Minnesota from North Dakota to the port of Superior, Wis. Three more Enbridge pipelines flow oil to a connection hub in Clearbrook, Minn.
“I think everyone should be nervous that has one of these pipelines in their neighborhood,” said Rep. Mark Schauer, whose southern Michigan district is currently being befouled by the oil. “The parallels to BP are eerie.”
The lesson for Minnesotans, he said: If it can happen in Michigan, it can happen in Minnesota, too.
A safety record in question
In 2007, an Enbridge pipeline near Clearbrook exploded, killing two people and causing an estimated $2 million in damages. Subsequent reports blamed excess pressure inside the pipe for the failure.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency that oversees pipelines like these, fined Enbridge $2.4 million and ordered it to change its procedures to deal with pipe pressure.
But safety problems have continued.
In January, a welding failure caused about 126,000 gallons to leak from seams of a pipe near Neche, N.D. (that pipe continues on to Minnesota). PHMSA officials had warned more than 20 years ago that those seams were vulnerable.
And earlier this year, Enbridge was cited for not adequately monitoring corrosion on an Indiana segment of that very same 6B line that leaked in Michigan.
An Enbridge spokesman deferred questions on those line incidents and on what, if any, corrective action Enbridge took system-wide or in Minnesota, saying he didn’t have those answers and that another company official would call to answer them.
As of this writing, that call had not come. Several calls to PHMSA requesting details on Enbridge’s safety record and citations also were not returned.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Enbridge President Patrick Daniel apologized “for the mess we have made” and said the company takes “full responsibility for the cleanup.”
Sen. Al Franken, who called the Michigan spill a “tragedy for the people and wildlife of Battle Creek,” said answers are needed.
“Enbridge has an unacceptable safety record for its pipelines, and Minnesota has been directly impacted by it in the past,” Franken said. “I am writing to [PHMSA officials] to ask them to examine the causes of the leak and ensure it doesn’t happen again in Minnesota or anywhere else.”
The Michigan spill
Marshall, Mich., is a quiet hamlet that a century ago was a finalist to be the state’s capital. With fewer than 8.000 residents (two-thirds the size of Marshall, Minn.), the town now functions chiefly as a suburb of Battle Creek, the cereal capital of America.
The first 911 calls came from the Marshall area at 9:26 p.m. Sunday, with residents complaining of gas odors.
“As far as I know, that was never passed on to Enbridge,” said company spokesman Alan Roth.
State officials say Enbridge was “doing something” at 5 a.m. Monday, but the company has been silent on that so far. Roth deferred on that and other questions on spill response timing, saying an investigation into the incident is ongoing and will take weeks.
Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel told reporters in Battle Creek that the company detected a leak in pipeline 6B near the Marshall pump station at 9:30 a.m. Pipeline 6B runs from Sarnia, Ontario, through Michigan to the Indiana suburbs of Chicago and is part of the same system as the Minnesota lines.
They immediately isolated the leak by shutting down valves on either side of the leak, Daniel said, and at 1:33 p.m., Enbridge officials reported the leak to federal officials.
By that time, company officials say the oil had leaked into nearby Tallmadge Creek, which flows into the larger Kalamazoo River. Some 25 miles of the river are now polluted with hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands oil.
“We are now, at Enbridge, working around the clock to minimize the impact of that and to clean up the damage,” Daniel said, apologizing for the spill and promising that the company would foot the bill for the cleanup efforts.
“We are going to do what it takes to make things right with regards to this incident.”
Enbridge estimates that about 819,000 gallons of oil leaked out before the line could be shut off. Michigan officials and the Environmental Protection Agency say that number is low. Their estimate tops more than 1 million gallons spilled.
Smaller oil spills frequent in Minnesota
The spill is a worst-case scenario for those who protested Enbridge’s pipelines crossing their lands, particularly Indian activists who unsuccessfully fought the latest construction of an additional Enbridge pipeline that was completed this April.
“We have our rights,” said native activist Clyde Bellecourt as he fought the pipeline construction a year ago, “particularly when it is going to pollute our land.”
The biggest worry expressed at the time was over major spills, like Michigan’s. But federal records show that more minor spills are a relatively common occurrence regardless of who owns the pipes.
Enbridge has had nearly a dozen spills since 2002 in Minnesota, according to federal incident reports, most of them relatively small — measured in the hundreds of gallons or less.
All told, 57 spills in Minnesota were reported in Minnesota between 2000 and 2009, according to data in a report by the National Wildlife Federation released Thursday. Damage estimates were $36 million.
“No wonder no one wants a pipeline in their neighborhood,” Schauer said. “No wonder.”
Of course, pipelines are necessary to transport oil and as long as oil-based products remain dominant fuels used for transportation, pipelines will have to be built. And as long as pipelines are used, they’ll carry both oil and a risk of spilling.
Calls for action
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has been deeply involved in the Senate’s response to the BP oil spill, said the Michigan spill is “another sad reminder that we need tougher oil spill response plans and regulations.”
Hearings already have been scheduled on pipeline safety in the House Transportation and Oversight Committee that Rep. Jim Oberstar chairs, with a view toward passing a pipeline safety and regulation bill by September.
Congress is also likely to hold hearings on the cause of the Enbridge spill once investigations are completed, Oberstar said.
“While it is too early to comment on the cause of the break of the Enbridge line in Michigan, it is fair to say that the initial reports from the scene are raising serious questions that the committee may need to address in hearings,” Oberstar said.
“Did the inspections of the line identify the issues that ultimately led to the failure of the pipeline? Were repairs ordered, and were they proceeding quickly enough? Are additional regulations needed?
“I intend to ensure that these and other questions are answered as we move forward,” Oberstar said. “We will craft a tough, comprehensive pipeline safety law. The public deserves to know that pipelines are safe.”