Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Oberstar plans probe of pipeline company’s safety record

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Oberstar has now laid the groundwork for a congressional investigation of Enbridge Inc.’s pipeline maintenance and safety record, set to begin once Congress returns after Labor Day.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Oberstar has now laid the groundwork for a congressional investigation of Enbridge Inc.’s pipeline maintenance and safety record, set to begin once Congress returns after Labor Day.

In letters to Enbridge, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation (one of their agencies regulates over-land oil pipelines), [PDFs] Oberstar demanded safety inspection records, including details of every minor spill on any Enbridge-owned pipe. The company and agencies were given until Aug. 13 to respond.

The investigation comes after an Enbridge pipe burst near the small town of Marshall, Mich., last week, spilling 819,000 gallons of oil which found its way into a creek and then into the Kalamazoo River. The total oil slick now spans at least 25 miles.

It’s a leak of particular concern to Minnesotans, given that six trunk-line Enbridge pipes funnel millions of gallons of oil from Western Canada, across Minnesota to the port of Superior. Three more lines join those at a convergence station in Clearbrook.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

Oberstar, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that will write the pipeline bill and conduct the investigation, has a particular parochial interest in the debate — those six trunk lines run through his northeast Minnesota district.

The Michigan incident, said Oberstar, “raises concerns about the adequacy and effectiveness of existing integrity management and corrosion control regulations and leak detection requirements issued by the Bush administration.”

To be clear: the investigation wouldn’t just center on Enbridge — lawmakers will be looking at the agency that regulates it as well.

The Obama administration has been in charge of that regulatory agency for about 18 months, so questions must be asked about how much change has come to the agency, and how quickly.

Spills of consequence
Enbridge’s Michigan leak is so far its largest. As the Battle Creek Enquirer noted:

Patrick Daniel, Enbridge president and chief executive officer, said Saturday there has “never” been a leak of this “consequence” in the company’s history.

The spill is the largest for Enbridge in the United States by volume and the company has a history of spills throughout Canada and the U.S., according to the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based advocacy group for democratic social change.

However, it’s far from the only spill. Enbridge has had 11 recorded spills in Minnesota since 2002, federal records show, most of them small and measurable in the hundreds of gallons or less.

But Enbridge has seen several spills in Minnesota, and pipelines that lead here, that by almost any standard would be judged as major.

Certainly, a 2007 explosion near Clearbrook would be described that way — two people died when an over-pressurized pipe exploded. Enbridge was fined $2.4 million and ordered to change its pressurization procedures.

Earlier this year, a pipe in North Dakota (that continues on to Minnesota) leaked 126,000 gallons through what was apparently a poorly welded seam. Go back further, to 2002 in a marsh near Cohasset, when 252,000 gallons leaked through another “ruptured seam.”

In 1991, when the pipes were owned by Lakehead Pipe Line Co. (a company that would eventually be purchased by Enbridge), 630,000 gallons leaked from a ruptured 36 inch pipe near Grand Rapids. That spill was largely contained by winter ice.

And a 110,000 gallons “contaminant plume” continues to pollute an aquifer near Bemidji, the lingering result of a 1979 spill.

Enbridge, it should be noted, is holding regular press conferences in Michigan near the spill but so far has declined to comment specifically with a spokesperson telling me last week that they were too busy dealing with Michigan to talk about Minnesota.

Topics of investigation
Among the topics to be discussed, Oberstar and committee staffers confirmed, would be Enbridge’s safety protocols.

Enbridge warned of corrosion in the line in a letter to the PHMSA earlier this year, but the pipe section that burst was not identified as needing to be replaced.

“This was not an area identified for replacement,” said Steve Wuori, Enbridge’s executive vice-president for liquids pipelines, in a press conference.

Two class-action lawsuits [PDF, link] seeking unspecified damages have been filed so far against Enbridge, both alleging negligence in maintaining the lines.

Oberstar, however, has his eyes on a bigger target than just Enbridge. In a statement, he described his committee as one on a “clean-up operation” after “eight years of neglect by government regulators have allowed industry a free hand to delay inspections and repairs that have endangered the public.”

Already, the House has passed legislation that includes tougher regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Minerals Management Service (renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

Both of them, Oberstar said, had way-too-cozy relationships with the industries they’re meant to regulate.

Next up, Oberstar said: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. As with the MMS, it’s an agency that Democrats believe hasn’t been adequately reformed during the first year and a half of the Obama administration.

PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman told a House committee in July that her agency is “committed to preventing spills on all pipelines through regulation, oversight, enforcement, public awareness and education.”

She noted that spills have decreased by 50 percent over the past 20 years, and credited PHMSA public information campaigns about digging and excavations with reducing nicks and accidental ruptures in otherwise-working pipelines.

However, Rep. Mark Schauer of Michigan, in whose district the latest oil spill occurred, said that members of the Pipelines subcommittee of the Transportation committee had had preliminary discussions about the relationships between federal agencies and oil industry even before the Enbridge spill.

Schauer, who was the first to call for an investigation, said the spill in his district means now is the time to finally have those hearings.

PHMSA did not return multiple calls seeking comments on that charge. However, they’ll no doubt get a chance to answer when Oberstar convenes hearings in the fall.