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Enbridge Pressure Alarm Sounded Hours Before Michigan Oil Spill Was Reported

Aug 3, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

An Enbridge Energy Partners’ alarm was signaled around 6 p.m. on the evening of July 25, 19 hours before the company reported last week’s Michigan oil spill. According to the Detroit Free Press, the alarm warned that pressure was dropping along the pipeline that turned out to be the source of the leak.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are trying to determine if the pressure drop was because of the spill, or whether the drop was dramatic enough to prompt concerns about a rupture, the Free Press said.

The oil spill was discovered on the morning of July 26 on a creek near the company’s pump station in Marshall. The 30-inch pipeline is used to move light synthetic, heavy and medium crude oil northeast about 1,900 miles between Canadian and the US.

The rupture spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the creek, which made its way into the Kalamazoo River. The spill also threatened Lake Michigan, 80 miles away. Dozens of homes had to be evacuated due to air quality concerns, and residents living near the section of river where it occurred were advised to use bottled water.

No one is sure exactly when the pipe ruptured, and controversy has erupted over Enbridge’s reporting of it. As we wrote previously, 911 calls of a natural gas odor were reported in the area Sunday evening, more than 12 hours before Enbridge says it learned of the leak. The Free Press had previously reported that a Calhoun County Commission claimed that responding firefighters talked to an Enbridge employee Sunday, who said the smell was coming from a tank belonging to another oil company. However, Enbridge has denied any worker was on the scene Sunday.

According to the Free Press, government logs indicate that Enbridge discovered the leak at 9:45 a.m. Monday, with the company reporting the spill to the federal government four hours later. Enbridge President and CEO Patrick Daniel said the company confirmed the leak at 11:30 a.m. Monday, called the National Response Center at 1 p.m., and was left on hold until 1:33 p.m. He said Enbridge had to quantify the leak before reporting it.

According to the Free Press, Enbridge has so far declined to talk about the NTSB announcement of the alarm. Up until this point, company officials have responded routinely to news media inquiries during the last week.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sent Enbridge a letter asking for maintenance plans, corrosion reports and maps as part of the committee’s investigation into the spill. Oberstar also sent letters to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation requesting reports and correspondence related to Enbridge.

As we’ve reported previously, Enbridge was notified twice this year of potential problems involving old pipe prone to rupturing and an inadequate system for monitoring internal corrosion. In January, the U. .S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PMHSA) sent a warning letter to the company stating that corrosion monitoring in its oil pipeline connecting the U.S. to Canada did not comply with federal regulations. The PHMSA didn’t penalize the company, but the agency advised it to correct the problem.

According to The Wall Street Journal, since 2002, Enbridge has received more than a dozen warnings or citations for violating safety and other standards and fined tens of thousands of dollars as a result, according to a review of correspondence maintained by the PMHSA.

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