Federal report proposes pipeline safety steps

By Michael Gerstein
Initial cleanup of the contaminated zone around the pipeline break area. Photo: EPA.

Initial cleanup of the contaminated zone around the pipeline break area in Michigan. Photo: EPA.

In the summer of 2010, more than 800,000 gallons of oil burst from a faulty Enbridge Inc. pipeline, wreaking ecological havoc as the oil passed through the Kalamazoo River, stopping just 80 miles from Lake Michigan.

The rupture near Marshall caused the oil to flow 30 miles downstream before it was contained, but residual contamination persists.

Last October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notified Enbridge that additional work is required to clean up the spill.

Now a national study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is proposing measures to prevent future calamities.

The GAO — a nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress — aimed the study at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which works with state agencies to oversee pipelines carrying oil, gasoline and natural gas.

Measures like automated valves, spill modeling software, locating response personnel closer to pipelines and collecting better data on incident response times could potentially reduce damage, the report said.

Judy Palnau, a public affairs officer with the Public Service Commission, said that her agency recently approved an Enbrige request to replace parts of the pipeline that broke along the Kalamazoo River.

Palau said that the company has proven there’s a “public need” for the 160-mile stretch of new pipeline, and that it “meets or exceeds safety or engineering standards.”

Construction is expected to begin this year.

The GAO report said that one of the biggest changes that could prevent disasters is the installation of an automatic valve that terminates the flow of hazardous liquids and natural gas when a problem is detected.

“While prior research shows that most of the fatalities and damage from an incident occur in the first few minutes following a pipeline rupture,” it said, “operators can reduce some of the consequences by taking actions that include closing valves that are spaced along the pipeline to isolate segments.”

Still, there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” said Susan Vermillion, assistant director for the pipeline safety report.

While Vermillion said automated valves “could be key” in a lot of situations, they work only in some cases, like when an oil or gas pipe is located in remote areas where immense environmental damage could take place in the event of a rupture, though she said they could also work in populated areas.

“They are a good solution in some cases,” Vermillion said. “You need to evaluate the situation and determine if it’s right for the situation.”

She said good leak detection systems can help improve response times to disasters.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — which the report was aimed at — will oversee

Photo: U.S. EPA

Workers inspecting a portion of the Enbridge pipeline in Marshall, Mich. Photo: U.S. EPA

construction of the new Enbrige pipeline. It will run through sections of Oakland, Macomb, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Jackson, Ingham and St. Clair counties.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission says a number of failing natural gas pipelines are going to be replaced, though Palnau said she couldn’t disclose the amount of pipeline to be restored.

She said suggestions from the new GAO report will be used by the commission only if state regulation is changed to incorporate them.

Brad Wurfel, communications officer for the Department of Environmental Quality, which responds to environmental catastrophes, said the agency is not worried about the new Enbridge project.

“If there was reason to be concerned we would be concerned.”

Wurfel said the department is better prepared to handle another calamity if one were to occur.

“The folks from all of the state agencies and federal agencies have learned a lot” about how to respond to disasters, he said.

“We are in better shape now then we were five years ago.”

  • Joe

    I fully admit you’re correct Jeff, but there is no difference in perspective. The article you’re talking about refers to regulations that are in place and how those regulations are delegated. This article talks about changing how things are built. One perspective, two different topics. Whole heartedly, and not being sarcastic, keep up the good work. Otherwise, I’m sure you could have shown how to fix the problem in a realistic fashion. It’s not like they’re talking about nuclear energy.

  • Jeff

    For a slightly different perspective– based on experience and careful study– than the ones offered by Judy Palnau and Brad Wurfel, check this out: http://grangehallpress.com/Enbridgeblog/2013/02/01/phase-2-mpsc-ruling/