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Enbridge tar sands pipeline break in Marshall, Mich.
Pipeline break that allowed tar sands to leak
 into Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan.
 (National Transportation Safety Board)
Having completed a two-year investigation of a devastating pipeline spill of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, the National Transportation Safety Board has released its major findings. Summing up:
"Learning about giant company's Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops," said NTSB chair Deborah Hersman, referring to the incompetent policemen in silent films.
The Calgary-based Enbridge built the pipeline that burst in 1969. It runs from Indiana to Ontario, and is part of a 1,900-mile system. The 30-inch pipeline carries a variety of light and heavy oils, including the heaviest, diluted bitumen, which is extracted from Canada's tar sands deposits. The bitumen is especially corrosive, making it rough on pipelines.

Enbridge is a competitor with another Calgary-based company, TransCanada, which seeks to build another pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. That one is called Keystone XL, so designated because it is extra large, 36 inches in diameter. TransCanada already has a green light to build a portion of Keystone XL, from Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas. But, on environmental grounds, President Obama denied approval for a permit for the 1,100-mile northern section of the XL, which would cross from Canada into the United States. A major reason: worries about pipeline breaks that could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies irrigation and drinking water to eight states.

TransCanada claims Keystone XL will only have 11 "significant" spills over its 50-year lifespan. An independent study, however, estimated that there could be as many as 91 spills. But the first phase of the Keystone XL pipeline had 12 spills in 2010 in its first year of operation.

So what might happen if the federal Keystone Kops oversaw the operations of Keystone XL? The Kalamazoo spill offers a hint: a f'n disaster, the most expensive pipeline spill in U.S. history, the largest-ever in the Midwest, 850,000 gallons, according to the pipeline company, 1.1 million gallons, according to federal regulators. The river is open again since last month for recreation, but the clean-up is still not over.

The cause: Enbridge's who-gives-a-crap-about-safety-when-we-have-fossil-fuel-to-move; and lax oversight by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration, which the company took advantage of.

NTSB Chairwoman Hersman said, "Delegating too much authority to the regulated is tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen house." The actual problem is that the foxes regularly tell regulators to go suck eggs and they obey. NTSB's succinct summary of the Kalamazoo spill:

The rupture occurred during the last stages of a planned shutdown and was not discovered or addressed for over 17 hours. During the time lapse, Enbridge twice pumped additional oil (81 percent of the total release) into Line 6B during two startups; the total release was estimated to be 843,444 gallons of crude oil. The oil saturated the surrounding wetlands and flowed into the Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Local residents self-evacuated from their houses, and the environment was negatively affected. Cleanup efforts continue as of the adoption date of this report, with continuing costs exceeding $767 million. About 320 people reported symptoms consistent with crude oil exposure. No fatalities were reported.
As Anthony Smith points out, Enbridge failed at every step along the way. Over several years, it didn't identify the risks to pipeline safety. It ignored indications a spill had begun. It didn't have the resources for reducing the impact of the spill. It hadn't planned for a spill. The closest "first responder" was 10 hours away. In short, Enbridge just didn't care.

As a consequence, last week, PHMSA, the federal pipeline regulator, proposed Enbridge pay a fine of $3,699,200. That is unlikely to pinch the company, whose recent profits hover around a billion dollars a year. Nor is it likely to do much to make Enbridge do something about its egregious spill record: At least 804 of them between 1999-2010.

In addition to the fine proposed by PHMSA, the NTSB made 19 recommendations to the Department of Transportation, PHMSA and Enbridge.

Andrew C. White has a discussion on the subject here. Lefty Coaster has one here.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Jul 11, 2012 at 12:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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