There are close to 70,000 miles of underground pipelines in Michigan carrying all kinds of materials around the state – things like natural gas, refined petroleum, and crude oil.
And for the most part, we really don’t notice these pipelines. That was true in Michigan until one summer day three and half years ago when this happened:
The Kalamazoo River oil spill was the worst inland oil spill in North America.
It took Enbridge Energy 17 hours to realize they had a broken pipeline.
The people who live in the area were the first to realize there was a problem. It was a Sunday night, and the first caller to 911 complained of a "very, very, very strong odor, either natural gas or maybe crude oil."
(Read the transcript of the 911 calls here.)
The gas company and the Marshall City and Township Fire Departments were dispatched to check things out that night – they were looking for a natural gas leak. They didn’t find one, and they left the scene.
More people called 911, but the dispatchers said the fire department had already been notified.
The federal report that looked into the spill said the possibility of a crude oil pipeline break didn't occur to emergency responders.
From the report:
…the firefighters’ actions showed a lack of awareness of the nearby crude oil pipeline: they did not search along the Line 6B right-of-way, and they did not call Enbridge.
The investigation said the emergency responders and the 911 operators exhibited a behavior known as "confirmation bias":
… in which decision makers search for evidence consistent with their theories or decisions, while discounting contradictory evidence. Although there was evidence available to the first responders that something other than natural gas was causing noticeable odors in the Marshall area, they discounted that evidence, largely because it contradicted their own findings of no natural gas in the area.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that "had the firefighters discovered the ruptured segment of Line 6B and called Enbridge," Enbridge might have realized they had a break and would have stopped cycling oil through the pipeline.
A similar problem across the country
Carl Weimer, with the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, says spill investigations all across the country turn up a similar theme.
"That’s a loop that keeps playing throughout the industry. The fire marshal saying, 'We had no idea we had these pipelines running through our community,'" said Weimer.
Weimer says federal regulations require that pipeline operators reach out to emergency responders. They have to provide them with instructions for what to do in case of an emergency.
But Weimer says there’s a problem.
"The flip side of it is, that oftentimes companies really have tried to do that as hard as they can, but they can’t get the attention of the local communities," said Weimer. "There’s a regulation that the industry has to communicate with the local community, but there isn’t any regulation that the local community has to pay any attention."
Call to Enbridge the next day did not come from first responders
The federal investigation into the spill showed that Enbridge Energy had followed federal regulations.
They held training sessions with emergency responders earlier in the year.
But that information, for whatever reason, wasn’t front of mind when the spill occurred.
The call to Enbridge didn’t come from the fire department, or the 911 dispatch system – it came from a Consumer’s Energy worker looking for a gas leak the next morning.
How first responders learn about pipelines in their communities
Steve Richardson is with the Michigan State Firemen’s Association. The group supports firefighters and emergency responders across the state.
Richardson says in his experience, most fire departments are aware of the pipelines running through their communities. He says they get mailers, and the pipeline companies host training events.
He says things have changed a bit since the Enbridge oil spill.
"And one thing I have noticed, just personally, it seems like there’s more from the community at these events. When I first started going it seemed like it was mostly just the fire service that I was involved with," said Richardson. "And now you’re seeing city council people and county commissioners, things like that."
A spokesperson for Enbridge Energy says they’re doing more to try to reach out to local officials along their pipelines.
They say they increased their efforts to reach out to emergency responders in 2011. They send out mailers. They try to meet directly with local officials, and they have an online training course. They say they also offer small grants to local officials for training and modest equipment needs.
Pipelines are underground and out of sight
Steve Richardson admits that for small fire departments, keeping up on the latest information about the pipelines in their backyard isn’t always top of mind.
They’ve got more immediate concerns – like house fires, car accidents, and just keeping the force together.
Sixty-six percent of the fire departments across Michigan work with an all-volunteer force.
Richardson says, it’s not easy to keep them going.
"Yeah, it's a struggle and you hear that from everywhere," he says. "And a lot of the struggle, too, is just personnel. I know a lot of fire departments, it's hard to keep the numbers up. There's a lot of training required ... for the volunteer community, where maybe they used to work one job, now they're working two or three just to make ends meet, so it affects everything."
Richardson says the number of emergency responders across the state has been continually dropping.
And that means there are fewer people on the ground who can step in in case of an emergency. Pipeline spills don’t happen all that often. But as we know in Michigan, when they go – they can go big.