The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) heard the major findings of its two year investigation of the Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill, which released over a million gallons of corrosive tar sands into the Kalamazoo River watershed in July 2010. The Kalamazoo spill has clearly demonstrated how dirty and dangerous tar sands pipelines are, even more dangerous than conventional oil pipelines. Nearly two years after what has become the most expensive pipeline disaster in U.S. history, emergency responders are still struggling to clean up the Kalamazoo River. The government's investigation raises serious questions about whether corrosive tar sands can be safely moved on the U.S. pipeline system, especially when they cross farms and waters in the U.S. heartland as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would do. In particular, the NTSB provides a damning picture of Enbridge’s pipeline safety measures. As one NTSB board member put it, this investigation did not only show corrosion of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline, but also demonstrates systemic corrosion of Enbridge’s pipeline safety program.
"Delegating too much authority to the regulated is tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen house." Deborah Hersman, Chair of NTSB
NTSB’s report shows in glaring detail that the $807 million tar sands spill was the result of Enbridge taking advantage of weak pipeline safety regulations and poor oversight by federal pipeline safety regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA). Enbridge failed to identify multiple risks to pipeline safety, failed to properly identify the spill, and lacked the resources or planning to mitigate the spill. NTSB staff found that the Kalamazoo spill could and should have addressed the causes of the Kalamazoo spill proactively.
NTSB made several major findings:
- The cause of the rupture of Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline was caused by the interaction of stress cracking and corrosion.
- Enbridge had been aware of both the corrosion and cracking on line 6B for five year, but the Canadian tar sands company failed to consider how the combination of corrosion and cracking would interact to lead to a pipeline rupture.
- Enbridge continued to operate the pipeline for 17 hours after the spill despite warnings from the leak detection system. The operator took no steps to investigate the potential leak, did not respond to 911 calls reporting the smell of oil, and only shutdown the pipeline after third-parties located the spill.
- Enbridge’s spill response plan was grossly inadequate for addressing a spill of this magnitude. The company’s closest responder was 10 hours away. Only a small trailer of equipment had been prepositioned to respond to a spill.
- Federal pipeline regulators at PHMSA permitted the series of mistakes by a combination of ambiguous regulations and poor pipeline safety oversight.
Perhaps of greatest concern is the causes of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill point to a systemic lack of a culture of safety in the pipeline industry and a failure of safety oversight by regulators at PHMSA. NTSB’s findings highlight the urgency to address the general failures in the nation’s pipeline safety system and to proactively address the risks of tar sands pipelines.
While NTSB did not specifically address ways in which the unique risks of tar sands contributed to the spill and the severity of its impact, the panel presented several conclusions which implicated tar sands:
- The pipeline’s failure was in part due external corrosion which combined with stress corrosion cracking, led to a pipeline failure. We’ve discussed for some time how the higher temperatures of tar sands can speed corrosion while pressure variations that can occur in viscous, or thick, tar sands can contribute to cyclic pipeline stress.
- Enbridge’s failure to identify the spill was in a large part due to a leak detection system prone to false alarms. We have discussed in some detail that more viscous, or thicker, tar sands leads to far more “noise” for pipeline leak detection systems which may trigger false alarms – meaning that a real spill is not identified.
- Enbridge was not prepared for a spill involving oil which did not float on the top of a river body. As we've seen, a large percentage of tar sands diluted bitumen sinks in waterbodies soon after a spill. The company not only lacked sufficient quantities of spill response equipment, but they had the wrong type of spill response equipment which only contained oil floating on the water's surface. PHMSA’s oversight in this area was found to be extremely lacking. The NTSB found that federal regulators are not taking their obligation to approve spill response plans seriously. This may explain why PHMSA has excluded the question of how to respond to tar sands spills from the scope of their study on the safety of tar sands pipelines. Without specific knowledge of how tar sands behaves when spilled, it will be impossible to correct the deficiencies in spill response planning which increased the cost and damage of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill.
NTSB made 19 recommendations for DOT, PHMSA, Enrbidge and spill responders. As the agency concluded, pipeline safety should be more than a slogan. The Kalamazoo tar sands spill was the result of multiple mistakes made by Enbridge but federal regulators are also culpable. Both federal regulators and the pipeline industry have too often treated this issue as a public relations issue prior to spills and disaster management afterward. There is a better way - one that requires strong, clearly outlined regulations and a pipeline safety agency focused on preventing spills rather than responding to them.
Photo courtesy of NTSB