Catastrophic Pipeline Ruptures Still Too Big a Risk for Enbridge, Report Warns

A "complete breakdown of safety" in 2010 has not been sufficiently addressed, a neglect that may spell trouble for its other aging lines, the report says.

Demonstrators in Sarnia, Ontario protest against Enbridge's Line 6B
Demonstrators in Sarnia, Ontario protest against Enbridge's Line 6B, the pipeline that burst in Michigan in 2010. A new report says the stress corrosion cracking and general corrosion conditions that beset 6B plague some of the company's other pipelines. Credit: Toban Black

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Pipeline regulators in Canada and the United States are being cautioned that claims by Enbridge Inc. that it improved its safety procedures and adopted sophisticated inspection practices are exaggerated and that pipeline ruptures as catastrophic as the company’s 2010 accident in Marshall, Mich. are still possible.

The warning came in a report filed this month with the Canadian National Energy Board, which is considering Enbridge’s request to reverse the flow of an oil pipeline in Eastern Canada and to use the line to carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit. The report was subsequently lodged with the U.S. Department of State.

“Enbridge is still not heeding pipeline investigators/regulators in integrity management,” said the report by Richard Kuprewicz, president of the engineering consulting company Accufacts Inc. and an adviser to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Enbridge has a culture where safety management seems not to be a critical component of their operation.”

The report recommends that the Energy Board require Enbridge to improve its leak detection policies and strengthen its emergency response plans for densely populated areas and critical water sources. Before the reversal is approved, Enbridge should also be required to check the line with a hydrotest, an expensive procedure in which a pipe is shut down and filled with water under high pressure to expose cracks and other faults, the report said.

Kuprewicz said he based his conclusions on documents Enbridge submitted with its application to the Energy Board and on records made public after the Michigan spill, including a scathing U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report that cited Enbridge for “a complete breakdown of safety.” Enbridge’s Michigan accident is now considered the largest inland oil spill in North American history.

The report was commissioned by Équiterre, a Montreal-based nonprofit that promotes environmental responsibility. After being filed in Canada, it was forwarded to the State Department by the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation organization that is seeking stricter scrutiny of U.S. pipelines.  

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash., said the report is important because it highlights the need for more specific standards for pipeline safety. The responsibility for spill prevention lies not only with pipeline operators like Enbridge, he said, but with federal regulators who give pipeline companies too much leeway in deciding which safety practices they will use.

“In a broader sense, this shows how decisions are left up to the companies, and the companies aren’t making the right decisions,” Weimer said.

An Enbridge spokesman declined to comment on the Kuprewicz report and referred InsideClimate News to the Canadian Energy Board website and the 49 documents the company has filed in response to various questions and comments about the pipeline reversal project. None of those documents directly addresses the report.

John Stoody, director of Government and Public Relations for the Association of Pipe Lines, a Washington D.C.-based organization representing the pipeline industry, said he couldn’t address the report’s findings about Enbridge, but he defended the industry’s overall safety record.

“From an industry-wide perspective—and I know is the case for Enbridge as well—pipeline integrity management is a top priority,” he said.

Pipeline operators spent more than $1.1 billion on safety last year, he said, including evaluating, inspecting and maintaining their pipelines. He said the number of spills declined 60 percent between 1999 and 2012.

Safety Management Lacking

Enbridge is Canada’s leading transporter of crude oil. It is also one of the largest pipeline operators in the United States, with plans to construct a network of new and expanded pipelines that would carry more oil than the controversial Keystone XL project, which would run from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast if it is approved.

The State Department is currently reviewing Enbridge’s request to increase the capacity of the Alberta Clipper, a pipeline that crosses into the United States from Canada near Neche, N.D. and has become part of the national debate over environmental safeguards versus energy needs.

Enbridge also is facing fierce resistance to a pipeline it is building in Michigan and Indiana to replace the line that ruptured in 2010. Environmental organizations are concerned about the pipeline’s proximity to Lake Michigan, one of the region’s most important drinking water sources. Some people who live along the route are outraged because the pipeline will run within feet of their homes.   

In an interview with InsideClimate News, Kuprewicz said companies that neglect safety will ultimately find themselves coping with disaster.

“They are going to be making decisions where safety is not as important as it should be,” he said, “and that can lead them down the path to making decisions that will lead to pipeline ruptures.”

The report says Enbridge hasn’t adequately implemented safety procedures that the National Transportation Safety Board called for after the Michigan spill, which dumped more than 1.1 million gallons of bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. (According to documents on the NTSB website, the agency is satisfied with Enbridge’s progress in meeting the safety recommendations.)

Carole Léger-Kubeczek, the communications officer for the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB), said the agency would not comment on the report.

“It will be evaluated in the same way as any other material submitted as part of our consideration of the pending request,” she said.

Enbridge wants the NEB to approve the reversal of a 397-mile segment of its 30-inch diameter Line 9B, which currently runs from North Westover, Ontario to Montreal, Québec. The NEB’s decision is expected by early next year. 

The NEB has already allowed Enbridge to reverse the oil flow on another section of 9B, in southwestern Ontario.

In a separate request, Enbridge has asked for permission to carry dilbit on its 516-mile long Line 9 from Sarnia, Ontario to Montreal. Bitumen is particularly heavy Canadian oil that must be diluted with light chemicals before it can flow through pipelines. Some of those chemicals are highly toxic and health experts are concerned about their effects on the public when they evaporate into the air during dilbit spills.

Enbridge also wants to increase the maximum daily volume on the line from 10 million gallons to 12.6 million gallons, enough to fill 20 Olympic size swimming pools.

A Risk to Drinking Water

Enbridge’s proposal in Canada to reverse the flow of Line 9B also has stirred an outcry from residents, environmental organizations and the city of Montreal, Canada’s second largest city.

Montreal city officials have asked the NEB to add extra safeguards to Line 9B.

The city “urges that all measures be taken to ensure the integrity and security of the pipeline in its entire length and that systematic inspections are performed at critical transition points (such as the Ottawa River) that could endanger the water supply of more than two million people,” according to a translation from French of the city’s plea to the NEB.

Steven Guilbeault, senior director of Équiterre, the organization that commissioned the Kuprewicz report, said regulators should heed its warning.

“What this report says is that people must be concerned about this company’s commitment to pipeline safety and the risks these pipelines pose,” he said. “Clearly they haven’t learned from their mistakes. It baffles my mind that the Kalamazoo accident wasn’t enough of a wakeup call for Enbridge to see the shortcomings of their safety program.”

Although Enbridge declined to comment on the report, it has previously said that it spent nearly a billion dollars in 2011 and 2012 to assess the safety of its pipelines. The company also said that during that time it has performed more than 175 in-line inspections and done nearly 3,000 pipeline excavations in search of potential problems.

Inspection Shortcomings Noted

The Kuprewicz report says Enbridge’s 38-year-old Line 9B in Canada suffers from the same stress corrosion cracking and general corrosion conditions that beset Line 6B, the pipe that burst in Michigan. The cost of that ongoing cleanup is approaching $1 billion.

The report found what it called “shortcomings” in Enbridge’s crack threat assessment program. Like most pipeline operators Enbridge uses inline inspection tools known as smart pigs, sophisticated instruments that use sensors to collect data on pipe thickness, corrosion and cracks.

But Enbridge missed signs that Line 6B had cracks where it split apart in the Michigan spill. It also failed to merge information from different inline inspections that separately looked for cracks and corrosion and pipeline thickness. Integrating that data is “a core requirement of integrity management processes,” the report said.

“Enbridge has claimed they are one of the largest users of inline inspection, or smart pig technology, so it is surprising that their crack assessment tool use, verification, and integration into their integrity management program is proving inadequate, even after Enbridge’s Marshall, MI 30-inch Line 6B pipeline rupture,” according to the report.

The report warned that inline inspections might not be reliable when it comes to assuring a pipeline’s integrity. Instead, it suggests using the more expensive hydrostatic tests.

“Without a proper hydrotest there is a high risk the pipeline will rupture in the early years following the project’s implementation,” according to the report.

The report urged Canadian regulators to reject any attempt Enbridge might make to argue that hydrotests damage pipelines. Such arguments “are without technical merit, and appear to be attempts to misinform decision makers and the public,” the report said.

The report also urges Canadian regulators to consider the consequences of pumping dilbit though Line 9B and other pipelines.

Because the composition and consistency of dilbit can vary, there can be frequent and large swings in the pipeline’s pressure. That places more stress on pipelines, especially older ones that are more susceptible to cracking, the report said.

Over time those pressure cycles can cause existing pipeline cracks to grow. That condition, called pressure cycle fatigue, may have been a factor in the rupture of an ExxonMobil pipeline in Arkansas on March 29. That accident spilled thousands of gallons of Canadian crude into a residential neighborhood, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.

“The movement of dilbit in pipelines at risk to cracking threats presents a higher potential to cause pipeline ruptures if not adequately managed,” according to the Kuprewicz report.

The National Wildlife Federation has sent the Kuprewicz report to the U.S. State Department, hoping it will be factored into the agency’s review of Enbridge’s application to boost the capacity of the Alberta Clipper.

Beth Wallace, the federation’s Great Lakes community outreach regional coordinator, said she hopes U.S. officials will see that Enbridge has a pattern of brushing off critical safety matters, including on a pipeline that is designed to carry more heavy tar sands oil than the Keystone XL.

“This report outlines some known and ignored safety precautions that Enbridge should have been taking to protect people along the pipelines’ paths,” Wallace said. “What this says is the potential for a recurrence of the Marshall disaster is incredibly high.”