This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of one of the largest and most expensive inland oil spills in our nation’s history.
At 5:58 p.m. on July 25, 2010, a 30-inch diameter pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge ruptured, releasing nearly a million gallons of heavy crude oil into Talmadge Creek, which feeds into the Kalamazoo River – a tributary of Lake Michigan – and flowed about 35 miles downstream before it was contained.
Although numerous alarms were triggered in Enbridge’s control center, located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, control center staff failed to recognize a rupture occurred for well over 17 hours, until an outside caller contacted the control center. Enbridge attributed the alarms to an earlier planned shutdown and column separation (a vapor-liquid void), and instead re-started the line twice for a period of 1.5 hours, pumping massive amounts of oil (81 percent of the total release, or over 600,000 additional gallons) into the pipeline. Once Enbridge realized there was a release, it was too little too late. Enbridge had only four maintenance personnel on scene; the closest trained responders – their oil spill response contractors – were 10 hours away.
At the time, I served as the Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials for the U.S. House of Representatives, which had jurisdiction over the safety of oil and gas pipelines in the United States. About 24 hours after the rupture, the Chairman of the Committee, Congressman Jim Oberstar, and Congressman Mark Schauer who represented Marshall, Michigan, asked that I travel to Marshall and lead the Committee’s oversight investigation of the spill, which is different than an NTSB investigation (for example, we looked at claims and HIPAA violations).
I wish I had the right words to describe what it was like when we arrived in Marshall. Utter devastation doesn’t seem to do it justice. Oil blanketed the creek and river, the river’s banks, and flood plains, severely impacting the environment. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts for oiled birds and wildlife continued for months; river restoration went on for years. Clean-up costs totaled $1.2 billion, and Enbridge received the largest civil penalty for a Clean Water Act violation in U.S. history, and the second-largest penalty overall, after Deepwater Horizon.
While, thankfully, no lives were lost, people lost homes and businesses, as well as income, and about 320 residents suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to crude oil.
Perhaps the most memorable moments for me were with the residents in Baker Estates in Battle Creek, Michigan, a community of about 70 mobile homes right along the river. I walked the oil-saturated river banks with them and was invited into their homes to hear about financial and medical impacts of the spill. See, no one evacuated the mobile home park. In fact, no one evacuated anyone along the river. County health officials issued a voluntary notice for homeowners to self-evacuate, which was noted in the NTSB accident report.
Meanwhile, NTSB’s investigation focused on the cause of the rupture and the oil spill response. NTSB’s former chairman Debbie Hersman was on scene. I ran into her and Peter Knudson, who is still a crucial part of NTSB’s media relations team, eating dinner one night in Marshall. Who knew we’d one day work together at the agency?
Through the investigation, the NTSB identified numerous gaps in Enbridge’s integrity management program, control room operations, training, and leak detection. To address the multitude of deficiencies, NTSB recommended that the pipeline industry develop an industry standard for a comprehensive safety management system (SMS) specific to pipelines.
Years later, I’m pleased to say that the industry didn’t just meet the intent of our recommendation; they exceeded it with the development of API Recommended Practice 1173, which also focused on safety culture and other safety-related issues. Since then, many pipeline operators have adopted and implemented the standard. The NTSB is working to encourage others, from the largest pipeline operators to the smallest municipalities, to implement SMS.
NTSB’s oil spill response investigation identified issues with the advance preparation and execution of the response that could be traced to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) regulations implementing the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990.
The PHMSA-approved Enbridge facility response plan did not provide for sufficient resources to deal with an oil spill of this magnitude. Furthermore, the NTSB investigation found that the severity of the oil spill could have been minimized had Enbridge focused more on source control and used oil containment methods that were appropriate for the environmental conditions. In response to NTSB recommendations, PHMSA undertook an effort to update the regulations and harmonize them with U.S. Coast Guard regulations for oil spills in navigable waterways.
Overall, there were a lot of safety gaps identified because of the Marshall spill. The NTSB’s work and the Committee’s oversight investigation led to a series of hearings that culminated in passage of sweeping legislation in 2011, which is still being implemented, albeit slowly, a decade later.
But looking back, a decade later, well after our investigators have left the scene, our final report has been issued, and recommendations are being acted upon, I think about the residents of Baker Estates and the other communities and business owners that suffered tremendous losses. For them, the work is just beginning, and Marshall will never be forgotten.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten because when the industry fails to learn from previous accident investigations and fails to make necessary changes, those accidents and the underlying issues that caused them are destined to repeat themselves.
In fact, as I sat down to write this blog, I recalled our 2005 safety study on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) in pipelines. SCADA systems are essentially a computer system that allows control center staff to monitor and control the pipeline from a remote location. The study was prompted by 12 hazardous liquid accidents investigated by the NTSB in which leaks went undetected after indications of a leak were provided on the SCADA system: Brenham, Texas (1992), Gramercy, Louisiana (1996), Fork Shoals, South Carolina (1996), Murfreesboro, Tennessee (1996), Knoxville, Tennessee (1999), Bellingham, Washington (1999), Winchester, Kentucky (2000), Greenville, Texas (2000), Chalk Point, Maryland (2000), and Kingman, Kansas (2004).
Fork Shoals was eerily similar to Marshall. The pipeline owned and operated by Colonial Pipeline ruptured, releasing nearly one million gallons of fuel oil into the Reedy River and surrounding areas at Fork Shoals. Like Marshall, the SCADA alarms and alarm messages had activated, and the controller acknowledged them, but he failed to recognize that a rupture had occurred and continued pumping more and more fuel oil into the line after several shutdowns and re-starts. And like Enbridge, Colonial knew of the corrosion in the line in the months leading up to the rupture.
If you’re on the fence on SMS, I hope this prompts you to take heed and not wait for a rupture to occur to act.
NTSB Office of Rail, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations Director, Rob Hall, contributed to the writing of this blog.