Enbridge: Trust us to be safe

With so much at stake, one might imagine the state of Michigan would lock in ironclad safety and oversight protections before it agreed to an oil pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac.

But about the closest the 1953 easement Enbridge received from the state comes is a provision on pages 3 and 4 that Enbridge “shall exercise the due care of a reasonably prudent person for the safety and welfare of all persons and public and private property.”

The lease gives the state no right to see safety or inspection reports. And for the most part, that information resides today exclusively with Canada-based Enbridge Energy.

When Enbridge says the pipeline is safe, the state pretty much has to take its word for it.

More coverage: Oil and water: Searching for truth on the Mackinac pipeline

In a June 2014 letter to state Attorney General Bill Schuette and Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Enbridge responded to their query about pipeline inspections:

Question: Does Enbridge notify any government agency of its inspections and report the results of the inspections to the agency? If so, please explain and document such notifications and reports.

Response: There is no requirement to do so, so Enbridge does not notify any regulatory agency of its inspections nor the results of those inspections.

And by and large, that's how it works in the nation's 2.5-million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines. The pipeline grid is nominally overseen by an obscure federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. But with just 110 inspectors on staff in 2010, PHMSA leaves nearly all pipeline inspection to the industry.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit public charity that promotes pipeline safety, said PHMSA's relationship with the industry can be cozy – to the point that the agency has adopted many regulations written by the oil and gas industry. A federal judge endowed the trust with $4 million in 2003, part of a settlement against a company ruled at fault in a 1999 Washington state gasoline pipeline explosion that killed three.

Weimer compared the regulatory relationship between PHMSA and industry to the “fox designing the hen house.”

Under PHMSA regulations, Enbridge is required to inspect the straits segment of its pipeline every five years. Enbridge officials point out they elected on their own to tighten that to every two years.

But Weimer notes that the results of inspections, both by divers and remote cameras, and interior inspections by robotic devices known as “smart pigs,” remain the property of Enbridge.

“That data doesn't go anywhere,” he said.

In its report on the 2010 Enbridge rupture in Marshall – spilling more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River system – the National Transportation Safety Board found lax oversight by PHMSA partly to blame.

“Contributing to the accident was (PHMSA) weak regulation for assessing and repairing crack indications, as well as PHMSA’s ineffective oversight of pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures, and public awareness,” it stated.

As concerns mounted among environmental groups in recent years about the safety of the Enbridge pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, Enbridge did share some information with the Michigan Petroleum Task Force – a multi-agency state government group formed in June 2014 to assess the risk of that pipeline.

According to DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel, Enbridge shared “substantial and varied kinds of data, multimedia stuff, reports, lots of data sets, all accessed through a portal because it was the only way to reasonably – or securely – share a volumes of information, much of which was sensitive.”

But Wurfel indicated that some of that data is technically complex – with no one at DEQ qualified to properly interpret it.

“So yes, one issue here is that we need some third-party expertise to help interpret and evaluate some of the data we received,” he said.

Wurfel did not say when that might happen.

Given the potential consequences of a leak at the straits, Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum said the firm has every incentive to ensure a rupture never occurs.

“The safety and operational reliability of our pipelines is the very foundation of our business...Zero incidents is and will continue to be the number one goal,” he said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 08/27/2015 - 10:14am
......"But Wurfel indicated that some of that data is technically complex – with no one at DEQ qualified to properly interpret it."........So in our drive to out-source government to the private sector, we didn't bother to hire anyone qualified to interpret the data? Didn't we have the same problem with our prison food service............no one hired to interpret good food from garbage? This is (and has been) a problem all over this Country. The Capitalists move in, take the (trees, oil, minerals, etc.) good stuff and move on, leaving the clean-up to US. Coal sludge, Love Canal, gold mines, tannery waste, paper production waste, etc., etc., etc.! If (when) the pipeline springs a leak, no body is going to be able contain it or clean it up. Will we ever see a time when you can't turn over a rock and fine oil in the Kalamazoo River? To paraphrase Jerry Reed, Embridge will get the oil, WE'LL get the "shaft"
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 2:36pm
Blue Fox, do a little checking around and you will find that your fellow Marxists are sitting in and caused the most polluted environmental disasters anywhere on the globe, where your hated Capitalists are in fact are the cleanest most improved environments, not to mention the safest work places! Not that I think this fact will sink in.
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 3:41pm
History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.—Milton Friedman
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 2:30pm
Given that the Kalamazoo spill cost them what a Billion Dollars? ... and counting? What more incentive would they need to be careful? Seems most of the crying is coming from those who want no petroleum to be used in any way shape or form but are just too chicken to admit their real objective.
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 2:52pm
Negative, Matt. I don't give a fig about cleanup costs. By then it will be too late. Enbridge's line 5 is a ticking time bomb that WHEN it goes off, will destroy the Great Lakes. While I have no doubt that Enbridge will do their best to balance the risk of catastrophe with their need to maximize profits, the fact that a pipeline designed for 50 years of service is still running 62 years after its construction (and that arguably has never met the engineering standards it was permitted to in the first place) is not a right vs left or a capitalist vs marxist (what??) issue. We have seen the devastation wrought by things gone wrong time and again. It is time to do the only thing that will ensure that they don't accidentally spill millions of gallons of tars sands crude into the Great Lakes basin: Shut. It. Down.
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 4:35pm
Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:49am
Chuck, There is a difference between the economic life [50 years] and the usable life. The former is based on a return on investment. The latter is based on technology and practices. I suspect that the pipeline was built based on the knowledge, technology, and practices 62 years ago. In those 62 years the knwoledge and technology has evolved and I suspect so have the practices. The financial decision was based on a static technology so the pipeline was built to last longer than the economic life [only way to ensure the financial decision] and everything else has been dynamic. With all the changes how can we be so sure the usable life isn't longer and longer, maybe 100 years.
Thu, 08/27/2015 - 4:42pm
"What more incentive would they need to be careful?" When we start locking up the CEOs of these "Human Corporations" (according to the Supreme Court). Billions to do a clean-up is just a cost of doing business, the accountants will make sure it doesn't really hurt. Probably even deductible on their Income Taxes Now, the possibility of a few years in the State "hotel" in Jackson for the CEO etal, might give them pause.......
Tue, 09/01/2015 - 12:20am
dollars to donuts, that cost is probably tax deductible to Enbridge.....not to mention, in the whole scheme of economics, they're reaping MUCH more cash from those pipelines than the TRUE cost of what has been lost. When will folks learn that you can't DRINK money nor eat oil/gas!!
Mrs A
Sat, 08/29/2015 - 10:23pm
Did anyone actually read this Olivetti-typewritten document? The one that risked the purity of 20% of the world's fresh water for a measley $2450? The one that gave open-ended permission to a private, for-profit entity, with the proviso that in event of a leak, they "telephone" it in and follow up with a notification via "registered mail"? The one that requires them to maintain a whole *GASP* $1,000,000.00 in liability coverage? (Dr Evil came up with that number.) That the agreement has no escape clause until Enbridge has an accident (heaven forfend) or abandons the enterprise (like that will happen) is astonishing. That there was no percentage rebated, no sunset clause or expiration date, no inspection requirements beyond looking at industry data appears a gross oversight that could cause irreparable damage to Michigan and the surrounding states. Hard to believe that the Great Lakes Compact, which would not exist for decades when this agreement was set up, has not sought a way to break it. All I can say is the pipeline is older than me -- and considering the shape I am in, I am extremely worried.
Linda H
Wed, 09/02/2015 - 4:04pm
Certainly, there had to be an expiration date on the original lease. When was the lease renewed? Is there an expiration date? We're they ANY changes to the lease agreement? I would think that "proof" of a violation of the terms, “shall exercise the due care of a reasonably prudent person for the safety and welfare of all persons and public and private property,” would be sufficient to warrant a revision of the lease. I consider myself a "reasonably prudent person" and I would certainly inspect and repair the pipeline annually.