Reactions on the part of some were decidedly positive on July 27 when North American energy giant Enbridge Pipelines Inc. was granted permission by the National Energy Board to reverse the flow of a 194-kilometre segment of one of its pipelines between the North-West Pump Station near Hamilton and the Sarnia Terminal in Sarnia, Ontario to flow in an easterly direction.
The Building and Construction Trades Department (BCDT) of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has lauded the approval, saying that allowing the reversal – which will involve $16.4 million in infrastructure additions and modifications at four existing sites – to proceed will not just boost employment but also strengthen the nation’s energy security framework.
On a broader level, however, viewpoints about the company’s safety record are not so positive.
To be sure, company president Al Manaco says Enbridge’s record is excellent. For a company with one of the largest and most complex liquid pipeline systems in the world to operate with a 99.999 per cent safety record, Manaco says, is an extraordinary achievement, though he acknowledged there was room for ongoing improvement needed.
Regulators and environmental groups, however, were singing a far different tune. That is hardly surprising given the company’s recent safety performance in the United States. A 2010 disaster in Michigan which resulted in 800,000 gallons of heavy crude spilled into waterways was followed up last month by the spillage of around 50,000 gallons of light crude in rural Wisconsin after a pipeline broke.
Having demanded the company submit a plan to improve the safety of its massive Lakehead system before restarting the associated Midwest line tied to its most recent spill, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Authority says it has communicated its ‘long standing concerns’ about a ‘pattern of failures with respondent [Enbridge] over the past several years.’
Pipeline expert Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US was equally critical, accusing Enbridge of failing to learn from its mistakes.
“Many of the mistakes Enbridge made that both caused and increased the severity of the Kalamazoo spill (in Michigan in 2010) were mistakes that Enbridge had made in previous spills and failed to learn from,” Swift was quoted as saying to the Toronto Star. “The spill in Wisconsin suggests there’s been little progress since.”
Furthermore, the company’s troubles go beyond Michigan and Wisconsin. For two-and-a-half-years, an Enbridge pipeline has sat plainly exposed in the Rouge River in Toronto’s Rouge Park, says Adam Scott, project coordinator of Green Energy at Environmental Defence, an environmental action group.
Should the pipe succumb to damage or erosion – a serious possibility in its current state, Scott says – the damage to Lake Ontario would be nothing short of a disaster.
Scott says efforts on the part of the company to reinforce the pipe, which involve bolstering it with a makeshift concrete barrier, are nowhere near good enough.
Such criticism comes as energy companies throughout North America come under fire for perceived poor practices regarding the safety of their pipelines.
Pipeline operator Pacific Gas and Electric Co, for instance, is facing intense criticism in the US after one of its engineers publicly stated that management had been repeatedly warned about poor gas record keeping representing a threat to public safety prior to a pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Francisco in 2010.
For Enbridge, which is facing increasing resistance to its Northern Gateway pipeline proposal to carry tar sands oil through British Columbia, this kind of publicity could not have come at a worse time.
Even if the company does get it right 99.999 per cent of the time, as it claims, it would do well to avoid headlines about repeated safety breaches as it continues to put forward these types of controversial projects.