'Just Call It a False Alarm': Oil Spill Probe Reveals Massive Safety Failures
Investigators blame Enbridge’s 'culture of deviance' for the worst oil spill in Midwestern history but fail to address the role of tar sands crude in escalating the danger and toxic aftermath
The rupture of an underground pipeline that spilled more than a million gallons of crude into western Michigan waterways two years ago was the result of a corporate culture that took advantage of weak government oversight, ignored proper emergency procedures, and placed “too little focus on safety,” government investigators concluded Tuesday in a measured but damning report.
The National Transportation Safety Board probe found that Canadian energy giant Enbridge, Inc., detected the very weakness that led to the July 25, 2010, rupture as early as 2005 but did nothing to fix it, and that pipeline operators were so used to false alarms that they ignored alerts about the spill for more than 17 hours and tried twice to restart the pipeline, increasing the amount of oil released into Talmadge Creek and the nearby Kalamazoo River by at least 600,000 gallons.
According to NTSB transcripts of the crucial moments after the first alarms sounded in Enbridge’s control room in Alberta, Ontario (see reporting by InsideClimate News), a supervisor asked if they should “consider it a leak,” but an analyst replied, “Just call it a false alarm.” Nearly three hours later, as the second shift was nearing an end with alarms continuing to sound, one of them threw in the towel. “Whatever,” the analyst said. “We're going home and will be off for a few days.” Only a 911 call from the local gas company in Michigan stopped Enbridge operators from trying to restart the pipeline a third time.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A. P. Hersman said that as the nearly two-year investigation proceeded, she began to “think of the Keystone Cops.” (If groups opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, which an Enbridge competitor wants to build to transport tar sands across the Midwest to the Texas Gulf Coast, can’t spin that line into PR gold, they should have their activist cards revoked.) “For five years, they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the rupture site,” Hersman said, “and the problem festered."
All of this was consistent with my reporting in April (see OnEarth’s three-part series “The Whistleblower”), as well as a parallel investigation by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which issued two dozen citations last week for likely violations associated with the spill and its reporting. The accompanying $3.7 million fine, a record for the industry, was much ballyhooed, but Enbridge’s adjusted earnings for the two years since the spill top $2 billion, an increase in profits of 25 percent. It seems unlikely that a fine that represents less than 36 hours of corporate earnings will have much effect on the company.
The NTSB investigators concluded that the blasé attitude leading to Enbridge’s safety violations arose from a “culture of deviance” -- a term first applied to explain the circumstances at NASA that led to the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Enbridge’s analysts were so accustomed to what NTSB termed an “over-alarming system” that safety engineers had come to expect false indications of leaks and spills, until they eventually came to treat all alarms as false alarms.
Considering that oil companies point to the efficacy and speed of these alarm systems as a reason why Midwesterners shouldn’t fear building Keystone XL and other new pipeline projects, it’s no small matter that the system works so poorly that the analysts paid to monitor it virtually ignore its warnings. In the end, investigators concluded that the “safety culture” among Enbridge employees was so pervasively lax that fault must lie “with organizational rather than individual antecedents,” and thus Enbridge, as a corporation, is “directly responsible.”
NTSB’s Hersman posed still larger questions: Is this culture of deviance peculiar to Enbridge, or is it representative of the larger oil industry? And if it’s the latter, what steps must be taken to improve regulatory oversight and prevent more spills as the nation’s complex of pipelines continues to grow?
The elephant in the room was the unspoken issue of tar sands crude. Investigators repeatedly referred to this as a spill of “crude oil,” without admitting the differences between ordinary light-grade oil and Enbridge’s diluted bitumen -- the industry name for chemically treated tar sands crude. There was no discussion, for instance, of whether the integrity of the Michigan pipeline might have been compromised by the scouring effects of tar sands, the corrosion of its chemical diluents, or the increased pressure on the pipe required to get the heavy-grade crude to flow -- all concerns raised by a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) in the wake of the Kalamazoo River disaster.
Perhaps most importantly, there were no questions about whether Enbridge’s safety system produces so many false alarms because it now regulates a flow much greater than the one it was designed to monitor and adjust. Instead, the NTSB’s technical investigation focused on the corrosion of protective tape surrounding pipe welds, ignoring what might have caused that corrosion to speed up starting in 2005 -- when Enbridge began pumping tar sands crude -- or why Enbridge’s system seems to have begun registering numerous false alarms around the same time.
Without getting to the bottom of Enbridge’s system failures, it will be impossible to reverse its “culture of deviance.” Indeed, Enbridge’s former CEO Patrick Daniel might not have acknowledged that the pipeline had carried tar sands oil at all, if not for the persistence of an OnEarth reporter in the days after the spill (see "Michigan Oil Spill Increases Concern Over Tar Sands Pipelines").
Just as significantly, the investigation limited its scope to the causes of the spill and the emergency response, without looking at what happened during the resulting cleanup, including documented violations of EPA and OSHA guidelines -- much less the allegations of John Bolenbaugh and others that Enbridge encouraged its contractors to cover up oil to meet government deadlines and cut costs.
If NTSB means to root out Enbridge’s culture of deviance on the safety side of its operation, then investigators must consider the mounting likelihood that it was fostered by a larger culture of indifference to public health and the environment.
In that context, the importance of acknowledging the role of tar sands in this spill is not only critical; it is central. Enbridge has applied to the Michigan Public Service Commission to undertake an enormous replacement project, which would lay 285 miles of new pipe along the current route where this spill occurred. Enbridge contends that the new pipe would be thicker than the 40-year-old pipe that ruptured -- but it would also be roughly double the capacity of the current pipe.
A company official also acknowledged late last week that there was nothing in current guidelines that would prevent the restarting of the old line once the new pipe is in place. If it’s possible that Enbridge could be pumping triple the current flow of tar sands crude through Michigan before the end of 2013, then it’s imperative that government investigators confront the specific challenges presented by diluted bitumen, rather than simply advocating for tighter enforcement of outdated guidelines. It’s clear, Hersman acknowledged, that current regulations aren’t enough to ensure that a disaster like this won’t happen again.
"This accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps made by Enbridge,” Hersman said. “But there is also regulatory culpability. Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse. Regulators need regulations and practices with teeth -- and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a spill. Not just after."
Otherwise, the National Transportation Safety Board could very soon be investigating more pipeline ruptures, carrying greater amounts of tar sands crude that will be even more devastating.