Enbridge on hot seat in Capitol Hill hearing about Michigan oil spill

Canada’s Enbridge Inc. took a beating on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for America’s other, lesser-known oil spill, one that spewed almost a million gallons of crude into a rural Michigan river this summer and proved a “stab in the heart” for the surrounding community.

Michigan residents Darla Thorpe

Michigan residents Darla Thorpe

WASHINGTON — Canada’s Enbridge Inc. took a beating on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for America’s other, lesser-known oil spill, one that spewed almost a million gallons of crude into a rural Michigan river this summer and proved a “stab in the heart” for the surrounding community.

“This spill went undetected, or un-responded to, for a very long period of time,” James Oberstar, chairman of the House of Representatives’ transportation and infrastructure committee, told Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel.

“Why did it take so long to shut off that pipeline?”

Daniel didn’t directly answer the question, failing to explain why it took several hours in the early morning hours of July 26 to permanently shut off the pipeline despite a series of alarms going off in the company’s Edmonton command centre.

But he assured the hearing that his company was taking full responsibility for “the mess” that was created near Marshall, Mich., and was determined to figure out what happened by co-operating fully with U.S. officials as well as conducting its own probe.

“This is by far the worst spill we’ve had in the history of our company… we want to find out as much as anyone else why that pipe failed.”

Enbridge has found itself under a glare of negative media publicity in the United States at an awkward moment: the Canadian industry is working hard to promote Alberta’s oilsands as a safer alternative to offshore drilling in the aftermath of the oil disaster that played out all summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

A report compiled by the congressional committee found that safety inspections on Enbridge’s Line 6B in 2008 and 2009 revealed 390 defects along the pipeline.

The Calgary-based oil company fixed 61 of them, then reduced pressure on the line while it decided whether to repair the others or replace entire sections of pipe.

Enbridge said the worst of those defects would take between 11 and 16 years to cause an actual leak, the report said.

Since the spill, it’s also come to light that Enbridge’s American subsidiaries have been targeted 31 times for safety violations by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, the U.S. agency that oversees pipelines.

The agency has twice notified Enbridge this year about safety concerns regarding its Lakehead system, which encircles the Great Lakes, and specifically cited corrosion monitoring along the pipe that ruptured in Michigan.

In Canada, the National Energy Board says Enbridge pipelines have ruptured eight times since 1994.

Wednesday’s hearing also delved into a large dent on the same pipeline leading into Canada under the St. Clair River. Enbridge says it suspects the dent has been on the pipeline since it was first installed in 1969, although Daniel didn’t know about it until last year.

“These kinds of incidents, the numbers of defects discovered on the line on which action is not taken, are serious failures in safety management,” Oberstar told Daniel.

Earlier in the day, emotional local residents recounted their oil spill experiences, describing how they found oil-soaked muskrats and geese that had to be left to die, faced questions from their children about whether they were now at risk of cancer, dealt with health problems and wondered about the fate of local businesses.

“My community lost its innocence that day,” Mark Schauer, a Democratic congressman who’s a member of the committee, told the hearing. “They deserve to have Enbridge held accountable.”

Michelle BarlondSmith of Marshall, Mich., urged the committee not to allow Enbridge to reopen 6B, which has been shut down since the spill.

“Freeze their assets, shut down the pipeline until it’s brought up to date,” she said. “This company has known about the faults of this pipeline and has done nothing…. Oil companies must not be allowed to set their own rules and regulations.”

Shortly after the hearing got under way, the Department of Transportation announced a new Obama administration plan that would tighten federal regulations of the country’s aging pipelines and significantly increase penalties for certain violations in response to both the Michigan spill and a gas pipeline explosion last week in California that killed four people.

The plan, sent to Congress on Wednesday, would more than double to US$2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm. It would also pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.

In addition, the bill would eliminate exemptions from safety regulations for pipelines that gather hazardous liquids upstream of transmission pipelines.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department “needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network.”

Enbridge has joined BP as one of the most distrusted oil companies in the United States.

On the BP front, outgoing CEO Tony Hayward came under scrutiny from British MPs on Wednesday over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, months after he had little by way of explanation at a memorably tense congressional hearing in Washington.

Schauer told the hearing he was stunned to see his community dealing with the same ordeal as those in the Gulf of Mexico this summer.

“I never would have imagined that just after holding hearings on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and strengthening the Oil Pollution Act, my community would be dealing with images of oil-coated geese and a river flowing black with oil,” he said in his opening remarks.

“I am very concerned before this pipeline is restarted that it can operate safely. Given the recent releases in New York and Illinois, and the over 80 release incidents reported by Enbridge since 2002, I do not think it can.”

After peppering a patient, unflappable Daniel with tough questions at the end of the hearing on Wednesday, Schauer told him: “You seem like a very nice person.”

But he added Daniel’s “words and sentiments” hadn’t matched the lack of action taken by Enbridge before, during and after the spill.