A Canadian company at the center of a huge oil spill in southern Michigan has a history of pipeline problems, including leaks, an explosion and dozens of regulatory violations.
Enbridge Inc. or its affiliates have been cited for 30 enforcement actions since 2002 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is the U.S. Department of Transportation's regulatory arm.
In a warning letter sent Jan. 21, the agency told the company it may have violated safety codes by improperly monitoring corrosion in the pipeline responsible for the massive spill Monday in Talmadge Creek. The creek feeds into the Kalamazoo River, which eventually flows into Lake Michigan.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 1 million gallons may have spilled into the waterway, but Enbrige estimates the spill at closer to 820,000 gallons. Cleanup efforts could take several weeks, possibly two months, officials said.
The EPA says the oil had traveled 25 miles downstream, but state officials estimate it has traveled 35 miles. Gov. Jennifer Granholm warned of a "tragedy of historic proportions" should it travel another 80 miles and reach Lake Michigan, but EPA officials don't expect that to happen.
Steve Wuori, an Enbridge executive vice president, said the company was doing maintenance all along the pipeline this year, but the section at the leak site was not scheduled for replacement.
Enbridge CEO Patrick D. Daniel again apologized Thursday to the residents "for the mess that we have made." Hundreds of workers and contractors went to work on the oil Thursday with more than 12,000 feet of containment and absorption boom, 14 skimmers, 43 vacuum trucks and a number of tanker trucks, excavators and other trucks, he said.
Health officials went door-to-door, telling Calhoun County residents in about 30 to 50 homes near the spill to evacuate because of air quality concerns. Others were told to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.
About 20 injured animals — mostly birds — were being treated Thursday at a wildlife rehabilitation center, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said. The center refused to admit an Associated Press reporter, saying officials didn't want to further traumatize the animals by allowing in more people, but planned a media tour for Friday.
According to the government agency's letter sent Jan. 21 to Enbridge, the company was implementing an alternate way of monitoring corrosion in the pipeline, and had detailed to regulators the steps it was taking to track corrosion in the interim.
But the agency warned the company that it was violating code by not using a sufficient amount of certain chemicals to protect pipe interiors, not using proper monitoring equipment to determine if those chemicals were working, and not examining its monitoring equipment at least twice a year.
Two years ago, Enbridge was cited for committing eight probable violations that may have contributed to an explosion that killed two people working Nov. 28, 2007, on a 34-inch pipeline near Clearbrook, Minn. Among its findings, the regulatory agency said Enbridge failed to follow written procedures for couplings on the pipeline, didn't make the repairs in a safe manner and didn't make sure workers had adequate training for that job.
Such violations aren't uncommon for pipeline companies, said Jeff Share, editor of the Pipeline & Gas Journal.
An Enbridge affiliate, Houston-based Enbridge Energy Co., spilled almost 19,000 gallons of crude oil onto Wisconsin's Nemadji River in 2003. Another 189,000 gallons of oil spilled at the company's terminal two miles from Lake Superior, though most was contained. And in 2007, two spills released about 200,000 gallons of crude in northern Wisconsin as Enbridge was expanding a 320-mile pipeline.
The Michigan leak came from a 30-inch pipeline, which was built in 1969 and carries about 8 million gallons of oil daily from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ontario.
Bruce Bullock, director of Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, said Enbridge is similar to many other pipeline companies. Noting the age of Michigan's pipeline, Bullock said that like the rest of the industry, Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge is dealing with aging infrastructure.
"They don't have a reputation of being particularly a star player in terms of their profile or anything like that, but they certainly have a good reputation in terms of delivering for their shareholders," Bullock said. "They certainly don't have a bad reputation."
But Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office, said Enbridge has a history of spills — including two major leaks in the past year. He said those leaks, coupled with the fatal blast in Minnesota, are problematic.
"This is a company whose safety record is very definitely suspect and cause for concern," Buchsbaum said.
(Runk reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Corey Williams and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.)