Accident Response is Part of Prevention

By Christopher A. Hart

Installation of oil boomLast month, the NTSB launched a team to investigate a gas explosion and subsequent fire in New York City. It often surprises people that pipelines are one of the transportation modes covered in our statutory authority. What might surprise people even more is that 2.5 million miles of pipeline crisscrosses the nation – enough to travel around the earth 100 times – and they present a unique challenge because they are most often underground. But if something goes wrong, it can be very dramatic, such as with the December 2012 natural gas pipeline rupture near Sissonville, West Virginia; and they can be deadly, such as in the September 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture in San Bruno, California.

When it comes to enhancing pipeline safety, the ultimate goal for any pipeline operator should be to prevent a pipeline rupture. The next goal should be to make sure that lessons learned from such accidents are applied throughout the industry to keep them from happening again. Last month, the NTSB reviewed steps taken by the pipeline operator, Enbridge Energy (“Enbridge”), in response to its July 2010 crude oil pipeline rupture in Marshall, Michigan, and closed three of our safety recommendations addressing pipeline control center staff training, first responder training, and response plans.

As a result of the Marshall pipeline rupture, almost 850,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the surrounding wetlands and flowed into local waterways, resulting in by far the most expensive environmental clean-up for an onshore oil spill in the U.S. The release entered Talmadge Creek and flowed into the Kalamazoo River; heavy rain caused the river to flow over existing dams and carried oil 35 miles downstream. County health agencies closed public access to 39 miles of the river system to protect public health and safety during the cleanup. The lives of local residents were disrupted or changed forever, and the impact on natural resources and wildlife was substantial. Our investigation of the Marshall rupture revealed gaps in Enbridge’s training and preparations for responding to spills in all environmental conditions. For example, we found that Enbridge’s response was hampered by inadequate resources on site, lack of spill response organizations under contract near Marshall, and the use of spill response equipment that was inappropriate for the environment and weather conditions.

Since we issued our report and recommendations in July 2012, Enbridge has taken steps to improve its steps for responding to emergencies. Enbridge developed and implemented semiannual training for its control center staff that includes the theory and practice of decisionmaking in the event of an emergency, tools for effective communication, leadership and team building, and situation awareness and workload management. Enbridge also updated its first responder training curricula with tabletop and practical exercises, completed the training of first responders, and will provide them refresher training. In addition, an independent expert completed a systemwide emergency response capability assessment for Enbridge, which subsequently developed an incident action plan, emergency response handbooks, and other guidance to support the regional emergency response teams.

These lessons, however, go beyond Enbridge. Most pipelines function properly most of the time. First responders need to prepare more effectively for those (fortunately rare) times when something goes wrong.

Christopher A. Hart was sworn in as a Member of the NTSB on August 12, 2009 and designated by the President for a two-year term as Vice Chairman of the Board on August 18. Member Hart joined the Board after a long career in transportation safety, including a previous term as a Member of the NTSB.

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