Michigan oil spill pumps up debate over Enbridge’s Albert to B.C. pipeline

EDMONTON — As workers struggle to contain a massive oil spill in Michigan caused by a pipeline leak, more questions are being asked about the safety of the pipeline owned by Canadian energy giant Enbridge — and about the company’s plans to push a massive new pipeline project through hundreds of kilometres of western Canadian wilderness to the west coast port of Kitimat.

Early this week, a section of Enbridge’s Lakehead Pipeline system burst in Michigan. It has unleashed more than three million litres of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, with the oil making its way into the river. There are fears it could travel all the way down to Lake Michigan.

On Thursday, the Detroit Free Press reported that U.S. federal regulators conducted corrosion tests as recently as last year that found “metal loss anomalies” along the pipeline.

Just two weeks ago, the paper reported, Enbridge notified the government it was considering replacing a section of pipe rather than repairing it.

The fallout from the spill has cast a shadow over another project for which the company has big plans: its Northern Gateway Project.

Aboriginal and environmental groups have been speaking out against the projects for months. They say it poses an unacceptable risk to the environment and their livelihoods.

The Northern Gateway pipeline would extend 1,172 kilometres from Bruderheim, just north of Edmonton, to Kitimat on the B.C. coast. It would carry an average of 525,000 barrels of petroleum per day. The joint review panel established to evaluate the project is holding pre-hearings beginning in Whitecourt, Alta., on Aug. 10.

Further pre-hearings, used to help the panel decide on the scope of the actual hearings, will be held in Kitimat and Prince George, B.C., later in August and September.

“I definitely think the (Michigan) spill reinforces a lack of trust and also the incredible risk this pipeline poses to British Columbia in particular,” said Nikki Skuce, senior energy campaigner for ForestEthics.

Skuce said the Northern Gateway pipeline is supposed to cross 1,000 streams and rivers, including the Skeena and Fraser Rivers, which are valuable wild-salmon habitats and important to cultures and economies in B.C.

She said this latest spill by Enbridge is huge and the company’s reaction, which she characterized as inadequate, is telling.

The company has promised again and again that it will have the best technology for Northern Gateway and that it would be able to tell within five minutes if there was a leak and shut it off, she said. “This latest spill just shows you: How can we trust them?”

There is some controversy about when the spill in Michigan from the pipeline, called Line 6B, started. Residents in the area reported hydrocarbon odours Sunday, but the company says the leak started Monday.

The Free Press reported that on Wednesday, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PHMSA — a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation — sent Enbridge Energy Partners Ltd., a corrective action order in the wake of the spill, spelling out the steps that must be taken before the pipeline is reopened.

It also ordered that the section of failed pipe be given to the National Transportation Safety Board for testing and a 20-year review of any problems along Line 6B of the 3,057-kilometre Lakehead System be provided.

Skuce said residents along the Northern Gateway route will want even more emphasis in the hearings on the actual response rates, the company’s spill record and worst-case scenarios.

The company’s goal is to have no spills, but it acknowledges that the size and complexity of their pipeline systems create a major challenge to that objective. The company’s most recent annual report, for 2008, showed it had 93 reportable spills, leaks and releases.

A Polaris Institute report on Enbridge from earlier this year said the company had 610 incidents, spilling 21 million litres of hydrocarbons into the environment between 1999 and 2008: “This amounts to approximately half of the oil that spilled from the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez after it struck a rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1988,” said the report.

Karen Campbell, staff counsel for the Pembina Institute, is worried the review process for the Northern Gateway project will be inadequate. The pipeline has arguably more potential environmental impacts than the proposed Mackenzie gas pipeline and yet will get a shorter review process, she said. The panel that reviewed the Mackenzie project had seven members, four of whom were from the Northwest Territories and three of whom were aboriginal, she added. The Northern Gateway panel has three members, none of whom is from B.C. and only one of whom is aboriginal.


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