National Transportation Safety Board: Pipeline Regulations Need Teeth

On July 10, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced its report on the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill in Michigan. The report is a scathing indictment of Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the safety of the pipeline involved in the spill, but also blames inadequate federal regulation.

The basic cause of the spill was "corrosion-fatigue cracks" that, on July 25, 2010, grew into an 80-inch-long rupture in the pipeline (while the pipeline was operating at normal pressure). Almost 850,000 gallons of crude oil (enough to fill 120 tanker trucks) saturated a wetland and then flowed into a creek and a river – more than any other land-based oil spill in American history. So far, clean-up has cost more than $767 million, and 320 people have been sickened.

NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman was unequivocal in her statement on the report: "This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops …" She reached this conclusion after the agency’s investigation turned up an outrageous series of errors and shocking disregard for public safety. For example, during the 17 hours after the pipeline started leaking but before the company got around to noticing, two employees had the following exchange (as reported by NTSB in May): "Operator B2 [an Enbridge employee] said that it seemed as if there was something wrong about the situation. Operator B2 said to Operator B1 'whatever, we’re going home and will be off for [a] few days.'"

The NTSB report also places blame on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and it characterizes the agency's regulations on pipeline assessment and repair as insufficient.

Hersman pointed out that this was just the latest incident to demonstrate the consequences of weakening or delaying regulations and underfunding agencies. In her words, "Regulators need regulations and practices with teeth, and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a spill. Not just after."

UPDATE (7/30/12): Enbridge Energy is now in the midst of cleaning up from yet another broken pipeline, this time in Wisconsin. The cause of the spill, which released more than 1,000 barrels of oil into a field, has not yet been determined. The pipeline was installed in 1998 (as oil pipelines go, this is relatively new) and had been inspected twice in the last five years.

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