Who's inspecting pipelines in Michigan? (Part 1)

May 24, 2011

The pipeline break that spilled more than 840,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River last summer is still being cleaned up. It has left some Michigan residents with questions about the safety of sending heavy crude oil through those lines.

Dick Denuyl is a retired school teacher in Marysville. When he bought his home along the St. Clair River, he loved the beautiful setting. And he wasn’t worried about the pipelines running under the water.

“I really never gave it much of a thought, until the one in California blew up, the high pressure gas line, destroyed a city block. And then the one, the Enbridge pipeline that broke and polluted the Kalamazoo river.”

The official cause of the Kalamazoo River oil spill is still under federal investigation. Enbridge officials say they also found a 12-inch dent in that same pipeline, this time in a section under the St. Clair River. Company spokesperson Lorraine Grymala says the dent did not cause any problems:

“Based on the internal inspection data, there really wasn’t, we were not concerned it was going to be an issue for the line, but it’s better to take more precaution then less, and so we did work to replace that section of the line.”

Actually, the federal government ordered Enbridge to replace that section of the pipeline. The company says the work will be complete by the end of June.

Dick Denuyl’s neighbor in Marysville is a pipeline inspector. Tom Philp does inspections for a company called Nova Chemicals. Philp says when he’s inspecting the Nova pipeline, he walks a few miles from his house along the St. Clair River to an oil refinery.

“I do it every two weeks. I just look for any possible leakage, like through stained grass, or bubbling, or anything like that.”

Enbridge also runs a pipeline along his route:

“There is another pipeline that runs parallel with the Nova lines, and I have yet to see an inspector.”

Grymala: “We have thousands of miles of right of ways, so the likelihood that you’re going to run into one person is probably not very good.”

Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Grymala says the company does a variety of pipeline inspections. They use special tools to look inside the pipes for cracks, corrosion, and dents. They do aerial inspections. And they have crews on the ground, inspecting like Mr. Philp does.

The government does have some oversight on pipeline inspections. But here’s where things get complicated.

The Michigan Public Service Commission oversees natural gas pipelines that flow entirely within the state’s borders. But no state agency regulates oil pipelines that flow entirely in Michigan.

PHMSA, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration, is the federal agency in charge of monitoring pipelines that run across state borders. PHMSA declined an interview for this story. In an email, PHMSA says it does some of its own inspections. But it has only 110 inspectors to keep track of 2.3 million miles of pipelines nationwide. PHMSA says it inspects the companies and enforces compliance.

Susan Harley says the government is leaving the fox in charge of the hen house. Harley is policy director for Clean Water Action in Michigan. She’s concerned that the companies are largely responsible for inspecting their own pipelines:

“It really is an operator inspection program, versus the government having oversight authority. The state doesn’t even have a hand in ensuring that these pipelines are being operated safely and inspected frequently.”

Harley doesn’t expect that to change, because of the tight state budget. Meanwhile, Enbridge has announced that it will replace 75 miles of pipeline in Indiana and Michigan.

-Julie Grant for The Environment Report

In part two of our series on Thursday, Julie takes a closer look at the transport of tar sands oil.