Golden Hour

By Debbie Hersman

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board released the complete accident report on the Enbridge pipeline rupture and crude oil spill that occurred on July 25, 2010 near Marshall, Mich. To date, the spill has cost Enbridge more than $800 million to clean up, making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in American history. Enbridge operators had plenty opportunities to lessen the magnitude of the spill by simply following rules that were in place. Instead, 840,000 gallons of crude oil were released into the environment over 17 hours.

When a pipeline spill occurs, the time between discovery and response is most critical. In medicine, they refer to the “golden hour” as the critical time when decisions and actions can mean the difference between life and death. Enbridge’s golden hour spanned over 17 hours. It lasted from when the first leak alarm went off, when the operator decided to ignore warnings and pump even more oil through the rupture — not once, but twice — making the spill exponentially worse. Company protocols required operators to check the validity of the alarms. Company officials did the opposite, ignoring them and pumping more than 81 percent of the total oil spill through the pipeline. The “golden hour” was tarnished the moment rules were ignored and warnings were not heeded.

What if Enbridge operators listened to the initial alarms? What if effective planning was in place and cleanup crews arrived quickly on site? What if Enbridge took advantage of the “golden hour” and did everything in their power to effectively triage the problems with the pipeline?

To the Marshall community and the surrounding environment, there was nothing golden about the dark hours that ticked by as the crude oil spilled into their waterways, impacting the lives of the community residents and their environment. Enbridge’s botched oil spill response evidenced a lack of preparation, planning and professionalism. When accidents occur, the manner in which an organization has prepared and effectively carries out their plan showcases responsibility. The “golden hour” should never become the darkest hour.

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