An oil pipeline being built across the southern part of Michigan is drawing new scrutiny from state regulators who recently cited the pipeline's operator—Canadian-owned Enbridge, Inc.—for violating laws that protect Michigan's waterways.
The violations occurred when Enbridge allowed nearly all the water it was using to test the pipeline's strength to escape into a creek instead of capturing some of it for treatment—and when the company did not self-report the violation to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), as required by law.
MDEQ officials told InsideClimate News they will now re-examine reports Enbridge filed after conducting similar tests on two other sections of the line. The new pipeline is supposed to replace Line 6B, which ruptured in 2010 and poured more than a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.
The reports are important because the agency relies on pipeline operators to follow regulations and to inform officials when things go wrong. Enbridge violated that trust, the state said, when it failed to abide by at least 11 terms of the permit that allowed the company to conduct the test. The violations included not having a qualified operator at the site to supervise the procedure and not properly analyzing the water it put back into the creek.
"We have to rely on all of our permitees to do the reporting correctly and in accordance with their permits," said Carla Davidson, a senior environment analyst with the MDEQ's Water Resources Division who signed the citation.
The incident occurred last month when water dirtied with oil, grease and other residue from inside the pipeline flowed unchecked into North Ore Creek in Tyrone Township, a community of less than 10,000 people about 50 miles from Detroit. A nearby landowner saw rust-colored water in the creek and notified pipeline opponents. Their video of the discolored water spraying into the creek was sent to MDEQ.
The company has until July 31 to submit a written plan to the department explaining how it will avoid future violations and ensure that properly trained staff are monitoring operations. In the meantime, analysts in the MDEQ’s water quality division are checking past reports to determine if other violations may have occurred and gone unreported.
Although the MDEQ said the tainted water probably didn't harm the creek, the incident has upset landowners and local officials who were already leery of the company's record. After the 2010 spill, Enbridge was fined $3.7 million for breaking as many as two dozen federal pipeline safety rules, and the National Transportation Safety Board reprimanded the company for "a complete breakdown of safety."
"They think they can come in and do it their way without regard to the local and state rules," said Tyrone Township Supervisor Mike Cunningham. "But they have to follow the rules."
The township and Cunningham have butted heads with Enbridge for a year over whether the company should be required to follow local zoning regulations.
"They sometime take for granted they can do what they want," Cunningham said. "They've dropped the ball so many times and they dropped the ball on this one."
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said in an email that "Enbridge takes this matter seriously." He did not dispute the MDEQ’s findings, but emphasized that no harm had been done to the creek and that the water has already returned to normal. No cleanup has been ordered by MDEQ.
A Glitch in the Test
The problems occurred on June 12 and 13, when Enbridge was testing a newly laid section of Line 6b in Tyrone Township.
The permit allowed Enbridge to withdraw 4.3 million gallons of water a day from the creek so it could conduct a hydrostatic test, which simulates the pressure that will be generated later when the pipe is filled with oil. The goal is to detect any flaws that could cause a rupture, according to information Springer provided.
Enbridge was given permission to discharge 95 percent of the water it used back into the creek. The final 5 percent was supposed to be collected and treated, because it was expected to contain traces of grease and oil from inside the new pipe.
But the operation didn't go smoothly.
A device called a pig—an apparatus inserted into the pipeline and pushed along by the water to check for flaws—got stuck, so Enbridge pumped air into the line to dislodge it. According to the MDEQ's Davidson, this procedure could have dislodged additional deposits from inside the pipeline.
On June 12, the amount of oil and grease that spewed into the creek was more than five times the amount allowed by the permit, according to information Enbridge provided later to the MDEQ. Michigan officials believe Enbridge captured less than 2 percent of the water that it was required to treat.