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Unpaid fines, leaks and spills at volumes beyond worst case scenarios for Enbridge Inc.

Photo sourced from U.S. EPA

A withering report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was not Enbridge's only oil spill challenge in the summer of 2012.

On June 19, a flange gasket joining two sections of an Enbridge pipeline broke, spewing 230,000 litres of oil sands bitumen from a 12-year old pumping station near Elk Point, Alberta – just two hours due east of Bruderheim.

In fact, Enbridge has had more than 600 recorded leaks and breaks over the last decade.


One of those occurred in January 2010, in the rustic 437-person town of Neche, North Dakota. Located less than two kilometres south of the Manitoba border, the farming community saw 47,000 litres of oil leak into their farmland when Enbridge's pipeline cracked.


But this accident paled in comparison to the company's Cheecham, Alberta spill – one year earlier. After a small-diametre Enbridge pipe broke, oil began spurting skyward into the surrounding area. The accident, Enbridge claimed, was too small to have registered in its pipeline monitoring system.


But what seemed a minor leak blanketed the company's facility and the surrounding forest with thick oil. 908,000 litres of the stuff.


Enbridge’s Elk Point oil spill had occurred scarcely two years after the Kalamazoo disaster of July 2010. That accident dumped more than 3.2 million litres of bitumen in and around the Kalamazoo River, Michigan.


Worse yet, more than two-thirds of the spill was, it turned out, oil pumped into the pipeline after the system ruptured. This failure to mitigate the spill resulted in a volume beyond Enbridge’s worst-case discharge scenario for that location. Simply put, the disaster was beyond Enbridge's abilities to control.


Even today, the spill has still not been entirely cleaned up. Enbridge faces $3.7 million in fines, in addition to its $700 million in clean-up costs. The National Trade Safety Board ruled that Enbridge had failed to heed warnings that its aging pipes were corroding and cracked, and had violated the safety regulations going back as far as 2004.


By the time emergency responders arrived at the Kalamazoo River, the raw bitumen from Alberta's oil sands – which only flows when diluted with toxic chemicals known as “condensate” - had begun to separate. As the condensate turned to gas, the bitumen sank to the river bottom, contaminating the sediment along a 50 km stretch of the river.


In the aftermath of the Kalamazoo spill, the now-gaseous condensate drifted through the countryside and people began to get sick. Sixty per cent of locals developed respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms – consistent with exposure to benzene and other petroleum-related toxins. 


The cost of cleaning up the bitumen is proving to be more than ten times the cost of cleaning up oil and exceeded Enbridge’s policy limits. More bitumen has been recovered than was reported as spilled, which puts the trustworthiness of Enbridge’s reports in question.


Following the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier said, “That incident was a very humbling incident for us, and it is one that we want to ensure never happens again.”


Who's guarding the hen house?


Regarding the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge stated, “Enbridge believes that at the time of the accident it met or exceeded all applicable regulatory and industry standards in its operations, a statement that suggests that government regulations are insufficient to prevent major oil spills. After over a million litres of oil spilled in Alberta within one month in the spring of 2012, Alberta’s premier Alison Redford gave lukewarm support for greater oversight, stating that she is “not opposed to the idea.”


As of publication, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has not conducted a complete review of all the places where the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would cross rivers. In response to the JRP’s request for a list of watercourse crossings with important anadromous fish habitat, the DFO was able to present a risk assessment for only two of the 600-1,000 streams that the proposed pipeline would cross.


Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail wonders, “With so many river crossings out there to be looked at, one has to wonder how DFO is going to find the time to do the job, if the pipeline is approved. Will fisheries technicians be running ahead of the pipe-laying machines, assessing on the fly?”


It seems more likely that the federal government solved the problem with the omnibus budget bill, Bill C-38. The new Fisheries Act covers only fish licensed in commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries, limits only permanent alteration or destruction of fish habitat, and allows Ministers to exempt certain activities or entire geographic areas from the Act by passing regulations. In fact, the new Act authorizes DFO to delegate responsibility for fish habitat protection to “any person or entity.” Under the new Act, there seems little call for fisheries technicians to do much of anything to protect Canada’s salmon bearing streams let alone its other watercourses. 

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