My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

The Enbridge oil spill, one year plus

Some one should write a book about this event, but I doubt that it would ever be published if some one did.

For those of you who don’t know, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured on July 26, 2010, a little over a year ago, dumping over 800,000 gallons of oil into a small creek that flows into the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, Michigan. This was, and still is, a major environmental disaster, and I believe that Enbridge should pay for the entire clean up, and be fined heavily on top of that. But, the real story, and what has interested me the most, is the incredible amount of red tape that Enbridge faces in trying to clean up the mess they created.

In the first few hours after the story hit the news, Enbridge was crucified for not reporting the spill to federal officials earlier than they did. It turns out that when a pipeline operator reports a spill, they are required to provide an accurate estimate of the size of the spill, or face heavy fines if the estimate is even a little wrong. It took Enbridge a few hours to get an accurate estimate of the size of the spill.

Then, a review of both Enbridge’s, and the federal agency to whom they report, phone records show that Enbridge did attempt to call earlier, but all the lines were busy. And that was just the beginning.

The agency Enbridge was required to notify has nothing to do with responding to a spill or the clean up of a spill, so that resulted in delays while the proper agencies were notified.

That was on a Monday morning. On Monday evening, Enbridge had crews on site, containing the spill. On Tuesday morning, top officials from the State of Michigan, including then Governor Jennifer Granholm, toured the site of the spill, proclaimed the sky was falling, and not enough was being done to clean up the spill. On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama promised a quick response. On Wednesday morning, federal officials arrived, proclaimed there was a problem, and sent for reinforcements, which finally began to arrive on Wednesday evening.

The section of pipeline that ruptured was excavated soon after the spill, and sent to the proper federal agency for an investigation into what caused the pipeline to burst. That agency promised a report in February of this year, but as of September 17th, no report has been issued. We still don’t know what caused the pipeline to burst.

It has been one thing after another. A story will break on some aspect of the clean up that points to Enbridge not doing enough, then we learn that Enbridge is waiting for approval from some federal agency before they can proceed. I could go on and on about this, but I am going to cut this short. In looking up a few things to refresh my memory, I came upon an editorial in the Kalamazoo Gazette calling for Enbridge to be sued. Why? Because federal regulators and federal agencies have failed. I know that makes no sense, let me quote you from the editorial.

“Yet, we would view a lawsuit as a positive development in this particular case — and not because there would be any real remedy that could undo the kind of environmental damage that has been done here. Taking the case to court would ensure a public hearing of the facts.

A lawsuit could shine a spotlight on exactly what transpired; compel information to be produced through discovery; disclose facts that may have a bearing on what happened; hold those who are responsible for what happened accountable for their actions or their failure to act; and penalize any wrongdoers with significant fines and costs that could be considerable.

When the legislative branch fails to protect the people — in this situation by not reforming how oil pipelines are monitored and maintained and adjusting the penalties for failure to adequately do so — the judicial branch can effectively act in the interests of the people.

Long before this Enbridge environmental disaster in July 2010, lawmakers should have promulgated aggressive legislation to compel improvements in pipeline maintenance. That didn’t happen.

That’s why we’re looking for a lawsuit.”

You can read the entire editorial here.

With all due respect to the editorial board at the Kalamazoo Gazette, we know who is responsible, Enbridge. What caused the leak? I am no expert in pipelines, but I did see the photos of the ruptured pipe after it was excavated, it was split lengthwise. We are still waiting for the report from the federal agency investigating why the pipe ruptured, but I think it is a safe bet to say that an operator who wasn’t paying attention flipped the wrong switch, or pushed the wrong button at the wrong time, causing a surge in the pressure within the pipe, causing the pipe to split along an old seam in the pipe. Enbridge will be fined copious amounts of money for not training their employees better, even if the operator responsible had 20 years on the job. As long as there are humans involved, there will always be human error, and as long as there are mechanical devices involved, there will always be equipment failures.

And again, with all due respect to the powers that be at the Kalamazoo Gazette, if you want answers, then maybe you should assign a reporter or two to do some real investigative journalism rather than sit at their desks and rewrite the news releases sent to them. (That’s one of my pet peeves, there is no investigative journalism being done these days, unless you count the paparazzi investigating the personal lives of celebrities.)

The media loves to go off half-cocked and call for action before we know what actions should take place. Until we know for sure what caused the leak, how can any one formulate legislation, regulations, or rules to prevent the same thing from happening again?

How is filing a lawsuit against Enbridge going to get legislators and regulators to perform the jobs they were elected or hired to do? A lawsuit against Enbridge is quite likely to have the opposite effect, officials will feel they are off the hook as far as their actions, and it would be prudent for them to await the outcome of a suit before they act once a lawsuit is filed. Once a case is in the court system, the judge’s decision would have a direct bearing on how new rules and regulations should be crafted, so everything would be put on hold until the judge makes his ruling to give the officials direction as to how they should proceed.

If the editorial board of the Kalamazoo Gazette is looking for quick actions, I’ve got news for them, the court system is not where you are going to find quick action. Such a lawsuit as the one they are proposing would take years or decades to work through the system before there is a definitive ruling.

And what would that ruling be? It’s hard to say. I doubt that any judge assigned to the case has the technical background to issue a decision until they have taken the time to educate themselves on the issues, and they would have to rely on expert opinions. Then you get into a situation where you have conflicting expert opinions, depending on what axe the expert has to grind. Which expert the judge chooses to listen to is hard to say.

That whole point should be moot anyway, the Kalamazoo Gazette is calling for a court to make law since the legislature and federal regulators are moving too slow as far as the Gazette is concerned. Perhaps the editorial board of the Kalamazoo Gazette should familiarize themselves with the document known as the United States Constitution. It is not up to the courts to make law, that duty is reserved for the legislative branch of our government.

If Enbridge was shirking its responsibilities in the clean up, then I would agree, file a law suit, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. When accusations have come up that Enbridge isn’t doing what it should, or as much as they could, the federal officials overseeing the clean up have defended Enbridge and the way it is handling the clean up.

Filing a lawsuit will only slow down the clean up. People will have to take the time to attend court hearings, give depositions in the case, and that will only distract them from the task at hand, cleaning up the spill and making sure that such a spill never happens again. Enbridge would have to spend huge sums of money defending themselves in court, and how often have companies been driven to bankruptcy leaving no money left to clean up the mess they created after fighting such lawsuits? I am not saying that Enbridge would be driven into bankruptcy, but it is a possibility, and then there would be no money left to clean up the spill other than public funds, and why should we force a company out of business, then pick up the tab for cleaning up after them?

That happens way too often in this country, but then there are those who have as a goal the putting companies such as Enbridge out of business. I see that as counterproductive. It is better that a company survive and pay for the clean up out of their profits than it is for Joe Taxpayer to foot the bill.

Maybe the editorial board of the Kalamazoo Gazette should inform themselves better before they go off on a rant. I know that Enbridge is installing new safety measures on pipelines they operate in the Pigeon River Country, including automated shut-off valves to limit any oil spills should a pipeline rupture. They are working with the Michigan DNR, and other state and local officials to come up with response plans should there be a leak, and they are taking other measures as well. I think I read that they are doing the same in other parts of the state, but I am not positive about that. Maybe we don’t have to wait for federal regulators after all.

The position of the editorial board of the Kalamazoo Gazette, that we should do something even if it’s wrong, is how we end up with bad regulations that do nothing to solve the problems they were intended to solve. I am not saying let Enbridge off the hook, I am not saying that the regulations  concerning the operation and maintenance of pipelines don’t need to be addressed, but let’s do it right for a change. Not as a knee-jerk reaction to a frenzy whipped up by the media trying to sell papers by creating a controversy where none exists.


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  1. Pingback: Another Enbridge oil spill and other updates « Quietsolopursuits's Blog