InsideClimate News reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The trio took top honors in the category for their work on "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.
The Pulitzer committee commended the reporters for their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
In the northwestern corner of Indiana a major pipeline project is planned that will carry vast quantities of heavy Canadian crude oil across four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, where 10 million people get their drinking water. The pipeline will cross one river just 11 miles from the lake. It crosses the other three rivers less than 20 miles from the lake.
Because the pipeline runs so close to Lake Michigan—and because it is being built by a company with a history of pipeline spills in the region—a growing coalition of environmental groups is demanding that it be given extraordinary oversight and protection.
But getting those protections will be almost impossible.
No federal or Indiana agency has authority to require the pipeline's Canadian operator, Enbridge, Inc., to move the line out of the Lake Michigan watershed—or to add extra safeguards, including sophisticated technology that can detect even minor spills.
In 1998, activists in Austin, Texas filed a lawsuit to protect their local aquifer from a proposed gasoline pipeline. By the time the project was built, the operator had been forced to add $60 million in safety features, including sensor cables that could detect leaks as small as three gallons a day. Some say the Longhorn pipeline is the safest pipeline in Texas, or perhaps the nation.
Now a much larger pipeline—the Keystone XL—is being proposed across the Ogallala/High Plains aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. Yet none of the major features that protect Austin's much smaller aquifer are included in the plan. In fact, they haven't even been discussed.
The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation's crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day—so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.
The Keystone XL also won't get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin's aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.
The hidden, long-term effects of the 2010 pipeline accident that spilled more than a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River became public last week when the EPA revealed that large amounts of oil are still accumulating in three areas of the river.
The problem is so serious that the EPA is asking Enbridge Inc., the Canadian pipeline operator, to dredge approximately 100 acres of the river. During the original cleanup effort, dredging was limited to just 25 acres because the EPA wanted to avoid destroying the river's natural ecology. The additional work could take up to a year and add tens of millions of dollars to a cleanup that has already cost Enbridge $809 million.
The EPA notified Enbridge of its proposed order on Oct. 3, saying the additional clean-up is "critical" and the work "should be conducted in an expeditious manner" to remove the oil before it recontaminates the river.
"The increased accumulation demonstrates that submerged oil is mobile and migrating, evidencing that submerged oil removal is warranted to prevent downstream migration ... ," Ralph Dollhopf, the EPA's on-scene coordinator and Incident Commander, said in the letter notifying Enbridge of the agency's findings.
For years, TransCanada, the Canadian company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline, has assured the project's opponents that the line will be equipped with sensors that can quickly detect oil spills.
In recent newspaper ads in Nebraska, for instance, TransCanada promised that the pipeline will be "monitored through a state-of-the-art oil control center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 21,000 sensors along the pipeline route relay information via satellite to the control center every five seconds."
Other companies make similar claims about their remote sensing technology, sometimes promising they can detect and isolate large spills within minutes.
But an InsideClimate News examination of 10 years of federal data shows that leak detection systems do not provide as much protection as the public has been led to believe.
Between 2002 and July 2012, remote sensors detected only 5 percent of the nation's pipeline spills, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The general public reported 22 percent of the spills during that period. Pipeline company employees at the scenes of accidents reported 62 percent.
The notice that arrived at Debbie and David Hense's home last September didn't seem especially alarming. Enbridge Inc. was going to replace Line 6B, the oil pipeline that leaked more than a million gallons of heavy crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010. Since 6B runs through the Henses' 22-acre property near Fenton, Mich., some of the construction would be done there.
What the Henses didn't know, however, was that Enbridge intended to take an additional swath of their land for the pipeline—and there was little they or any of the other landowners who lived along the 210-mile route could do to stop it.
In addition to the existing 60-foot easement Enbridge already has through the Henses' property, the company wants another 25 feet—about the width of a two-lane highway—for the new pipeline. It also wants a temporary 60-foot easement for a work area.
For the Henses, this means the loss of a century-old stand of trees. In Oceola Township, Beth Duman will lose part of her back deck. In the town of Howell, Peter Baldwin will lose a section of the nature preserve he has nurtured for decades.
Today the Henses and other angry residents have become unlikely activists, determined to at least have a voice in the $1.3 billion replacement project.
WASHINGTON—Efforts to beef up oversight of the nation's oil pipelines are progressing so slowly that it's unlikely any additional safeguards will be in place before construction begins on thousands of miles of new pipelines, including the proposed Keystone XL.
Part of the delay stems from how slowly the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the federal agency with the authority to issue new regulations—is moving on its rulemaking process. For instance, PHMSA began examining at least six safety regulations in October 2010, three months after a ruptured pipeline spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. None of those changes is in effect nearly two years later.
Congress's latest pipeline safety bill, which was signed into law in January, did little to speed up the process.
The measure did not address two of the key regulatory failures that InsideClimate News found during a recent seven-month investigation of the Michigan spill. It did not force PHMSA to enforce deadlines for repairing pipeline defects or require that pipeline operators identify exactly what type of oil is flowing through their lines. Both of those failures were also detailed in a report released this month by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines are going into the ground, and there aren’t going to be regulations that make them safer for years," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash.
What fines could Enbridge face for its oil spill in Marshall, Mich.?
The size of any fines will depend, in part, on how much oil was spilled when Pipeline 6B ruptured.
The EPA's latest estimate, released on June 7, is that 1,148,229 gallons (or 27,339 barrels) have been recovered since the cleanup began on July 26, 2010.
Enbridge maintains that it spilled only 843,444 gallons (20,082 barrels), an estimate the company hasn't changed since November 2010.
The discrepancy between these numbers matters, because penalties levied under the Clean Water Act are figured on a per-barrel basis.
Enbridge's civil penalties could reach $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled if the government can prove gross negligence under the Clean Water Act. If gross negligence can't be proved, civil penalties could still be as high as $1,100 per barrel. Criminal penalties under the Clean Water Act could be up to twice the losses associated with the spill.
Defining those losses is a gray area because no case law exists, said David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section. Losses incurred by victims of the spill and the cost of the cleanup are likely to be counted, but lost revenue to Enbridge would not.