East Lansing, MI – Enbridge Energy Partners has shut down a third oil pipeline, this one near Buffalo, New York, after a possible leak was discovered. This latest closure adds fuel to accusations that the company has not properly maintained its pipelines.
Two other incidents in the Great Lakes area, including a major spill in Marshall, Michigan, have focused attention on pipeline safety.
On Wednesday, a congressional committee will begin looking into the company's practices.
Today's hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure was set up to address the pipeline rupture in July that spilled about 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Congressman Mark Schauer, who represents the area, sits on the committee. He says the Marshall oil spill raises questions about Enbridge's ability to operate its pipelines safely.
"I want to know why when there were over 300 defects in the pipeline, this company didn't address them. And they made $1.9 billion in profits last year. So, they have a lot of questions to answer," he says.
Steven Hamilton is among those asking questions. He teaches ecosystem ecology at Michigan State University. But he's also president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. He says until the oil spill in Marshall this summer, he wasn't aware of where the pipelines were located and the potential hazards.
"I think an incident like the Kalamazoo River oil spill should be a wake-up call, because we have 165,000 miles of oil pipelines criss-crossing the Untied States, and they go through a lot of sensitive ecosystms and inhabited areas like cities and suburbs," says Hamilton. "And the fact that a spill of this magnitude can occur, should tell us that we've got a very potentially dangerous situation and we need to find ways to make it safe."
Many experts say federal agencies have vastly improved their oversight of oil pipelines since the 1999, when an oil spill and the resulting fire killed two people in Washington state.
Hamilton says the biggest threat to pipelines now is old age.
"This particular pipeline which ruptured into the Kalamazoo River was built in the 1960's and its not surprising that you've developed some corrosion problems over time," he says.
The hearing is also expected to examine procedures for detecting and reporting pipeline ruptures. Although a complete investigation of the Marshall oil spill will take many more months, there are indications that oil started spilling into Talmidge Creek on Sunday, July 25th. That's when residents started calling 911 because they smelled an oil odor.
Enbridge engineers detected changes in pipeline pressure on Sunday, but didn't discover the rupture until Monday morning. Even then, it was two hours later before the company reported the spill to authorities.
Congressman Mark Schauer says he wants to find out why it took Enbridge so long to respond.
"Ten days before the accident, they testified before this very committee saying that their leak detection system could detect the smallest of leaks," says Schauer. "So they had an overall system failure."
Schaurer has introduced a bill that will specify that a company must report a spill within an hour. He expects there will be other changes to the Pipeline Safety Act as a result of this spill, to give the federal government additional tools to regulate oil pipeline companies.