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.
Enbridge was also cited for failing to perform some water quality tests, for improperly conducting other tests and for not having a properly trained supervisor on site.
The company didn't respond to questions about why trained personnel weren't on hand or why some of the required tests weren't performed.
The section of pipe that was tested is part of first phase of Enbridge's plan to replace the entire 210-mile length of Line 6b from Griffith, Ind. to Ontario, Canada, at a cost of $1.3 billion.
This phase, which involves 75 miles of pipe in Michigan and Indiana, has been delayed nearly a year by property owners angry about the prices Enbridge is paying them for the land it needs for the project.
The new line will be capable of pumping up to 21 million gallons of oil per day—almost double 6B's pre-spill daily capacity of 11.3 million gallons.
A Geyser of Water
Davidson and her office became aware of the violations after a resident saw the water being discharged into the creek and contacted a lawyer who has represented landowners in their disputes with Enbridge. The attorney then asked environment activist Jake McGraw to take a look.
In an interview, McGraw said he saw a geyser of water spraying about 15 feet into the air.
"The immediate thing I noticed was the color of the water—reddish orange—and how much downstream was that color," McGraw said. "You couldn't see any of the usual color of the water because the rust color wasn't dissipating. It went on downstream for as far as the eye could see."
The video McGraw shot of the scene was eventually sent to the MDEQ. Davidson said the fact that the water was spewing into the air wasn't a problem. It was released that way on purpose, she said, to avoid discharging the water into the creek at pressure high enough to scour the river bottom. The real problem, she said, was that the discolored water mixed with oil and grease shouldn't have gone back into the creek at all, because it was the 5 percent of the test water that Enbridge was supposed to capture.
The MDEQ's June 28 citation describes the creek banks as being fouled with a red stain and the clear creek water as having turned a muddy color. Although Davidson doesn't believe the spill created a threat to human health or any permanent damage to North Ore Creek, she said "the rusty water should not have been discharged."
Springer, the Enbridge spokesman, acknowledged in his email that the last portion of water used in hydrostatic tests typically contains some sediment and rust.
"As a result, the 'tail end' of the discharge where the sediment and rust typically accumulates is supposed to be treated separately or taken to an offsite location for treatment and disposal," he said.
Springer did not explain why that didn't happen in this case.
Because of the issues raised in the citation issued by Davidson's regional office, Deborah Quinn and Ken Leanin—senior environment analysts in two other regional offices—are now reviewing reports Enbridge submitted in connection with similar hydrostatic tests.
The first test was done in January and the water discharged into the Kalamazoo River near the town of Marshall, where the 2010 pipeline spill occurred. The second test was in March and the water discharged into the Portage River in St. Joseph County.
"It will take some time, but we intend to thoroughly review the reports for any discrepancies," Quinn said.
New Worries for Landowners
The news that Enbridge had been cited for violating Michigan environmental laws made David Gallagher even more worried about the Line 6B replacement project, which will come within 12 feet of his house in Ceresco, Mich.
"When you hear something like this it erodes the confidence in Enbridge's promises," Gallagher said. "They ask us to trust them and then they have these violations.
"It makes you think in terms of their long-term concern for the environment and the people who have to live with their pipeline in their backyards."
Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash., said the incident signals a disconnect between the public image pipeline operators try to promote and the reality of their conduct.
"It doesn't take many times hearing their PR people say 'We are going above and beyond the regulations' and come to find out they aren't," Weimer said. "It doesn't take many of those instances when the reality is different from the promises to undermine the public's trust."
Weimer said the nation's pipeline regulations aren't that onerous and companies like Enbridge can easily afford to comply with them.
"They keep messing up on things they should be doing right," he said. "It's one of my frustrations that the industry has the resources and the technology to comply and they choose not to do so."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Enbridge allowed all the water it was using to test the pipeline's strength to escape into a creek. About 98 percent of the water was allowed to flow into the creek.