Airboats and booms on the Kalamazoo River between Battle Creek and Historic Bridge Park in September 2011. (Courtesy: John Grap/Batte Creek Enquirer)
WASHINGTON (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board this morning said Enbridge Energy Partners detected the defect that led to a massive oil spill in south-central Michigan five years before it occurred, but failed to do anything about it.
Opening a hearing on the pipeline spill near Marshall in July 2010, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said an investigation into the rupture of the 30-inch pipeline revealed several concerns, including a lack of regulatory oversight and a delay on the part of Enbridge to respond to the spill led to "significant" environmental damage.
She also said that at the time of the spill, Enbridge's closest oil spill response contractor was out of state and more than 10 hours away.
"Pipeline operators are required to have an integrity management program, which continually assesses and addresses the safety risk on their pipelines, particularly those in high-consequence areas," Hersman said. "In 2005, Enbridge detected the very defect that led to this failure ... Yet for five years, they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the rupture site - and the problem festered."
NTSB's lead investigator, Matt Nicholson, said the defects at the site were misidentified as problems that didn't require immediate remediation in 2005.
More than 800,000 gallons - and possibly as much as one million or more gallons - spilled into Talmadge Creek near Marshall as a result of the rupture. Last week, federal regulators announced a proposed $3.7-million penalty against Enbridge, which would be the largest ever for an onshore pipeline spill.
But Hersman leveled criticism at the pipeline regulatory system as well, saying Enbridge was able to "take advantage of weak regulations for assesing and repairing crack indications, and PHMSA (the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) was ineffective in overseeing Enbridge's pipeline integrity management programs."
Today's NTSB hearing came as the agency was to reveal and finalize a draft report of the causes of the spill, the largest ever in the Midwest.
As in last week's release from PHMSA, Enbridge was called out for not responding to the rupture despite signals that indicated a problem on Line 6B, restarting it twice before shutting it down for good.
"While there have been larger onshore oil spills, in this case, Enbridge Inc. is responsible for the release that has been the most expensive to clean up," said Hersman, noting that the EPA and Enbridge have put the cost at more than $800-million.
"That is already more than five times the next most costly onshore oil spill," Hersman said.
DETROIT FREE PRESS