CALGARY - Enbridge Inc. faces a growing public relations nightmare around an oil spill in a Michigan river amid reports the pipeline company knew of corrosion on the ruptured line weeks before the incident.
The Calgary-based company, under fire for a 3.3 million litre crude oil spill into the lush Kalamazoo River, admitted Thursday the aging Line 6B had been subject to more than 100 repairs during the past year.
But the ruptured pipe near the town of Marshall had not been tagged as a hot spot in Enbridge's maintenance plan.
"This was not an area identified for replacement," said Steve Wuori, executive vice-president, liquids pipelines.
Speaking from the "unified command centre" in Battle River, Mich., Wuori said a complete in-line inspection had been made on line that runs between Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ont., in 2009 resulting in 139 "digs" on the system to date this year.
According to a letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Enbridge Energy Partners - the Houston-based subsidiary operating the 190,000 barrel per day line - informed the department earlier in July the 41-year-old pipe likely was corroded and need replacing.
Weeks later, on July 26, a section of the underground pipeline burst spewing at least 19,500 barrels of crude into a creek that flows into the Kalamazoo River, which in turn empties into Lake Michigan.
By Thursday more than 50 families had been evacuated from homes close to the contaminated river because of elevated benzine levels in the air, Michigan health officials said.
"I will tell you that at the beginning of this we were more focused on the short-term numbers," said Jim Rutherford, health official with Calhoun County. "The numbers we are now looking at are long-term exposure numbers, so we have identified as a result an area that we need to evacuate."
Another 200 homes along the tainted river have been told to avoid drinking well water in favour of bottled water - supplied by Enbridge - as a precautionary measure.
In a new development, Enbridge revealed the underground pipeline, part of its Lakehead system, had been shut down for routine maintenance for 10 hours on Sunday, then restarted Monday morning when the leak was discovered. The pipeline company had previously been told by federal agents to reduce in-line pressure along other portions of its network.
Enbridge is no stranger to spills along its vast network of pipelines which flow the bulk of Canadian oil exports to terminals and refineries in the United States.
According to the transportation department, Enbridge has spilled about 1.5 million litres of oil since 2002, roughly half the amount released in a matter of hours before the Michigan leak was contained.
Beleaguered chief executive Pat Daniel apologized again to the public Thursday for "the mess that we have made."
"We take full responsibilities for the cleanup and will be here until you are happy in this community and this county that we have completed our responsibilities," he said, from Battle Creek, where he has been overseeing operations. "We still have a huge job in front of us, there's no doubt about that."
Approximately 1,000 barrels of oil have been recovered from the site. Daniel was vague about when the line would come back into service, but kept to sooner rather than later, despite evidence repair and recovery operations would drag out longer than the "days rather than weeks" originally mentioned
Swampy ground and high water levels have delayed operations to dig up the ruptured length of pipe, required for failure analysis, for days although Enbridge estimated it would be accessing the pipe Thursday.
"It's too early to say exactly how long it will take (to clean up), but it will be more than just a few days," said Ralph Dollhopf, on-scene U.S. Environmental Protection Agency co-ordinator.
On Wednesday the U.S. Department of Transportation directed the company to complete a comprehensive safety assessment on the line before reopening it to service.
Enbridge will submit the ruptured pipe to a national board for testing. Based on the failure analysis, the company then will develop and implement a work plan covering factors noted in the report.
The line will then be allowed to restart, subject to a 20 per cent pressure reduction in operating pressure as a safety precaution.
The order by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will mean Enbridge will not be shipping oil on the line "anytime soon," according to March Schauer, Michigan State democratic congressman.
Schauer has pushed for stiffer penalties around oil spills.
Officials from local, state and federal agencies have joined forces in Marshall, Mich., to centralize cleanup operations which include crews in charge of booms, sweeps, water vacuums and wildlife rescue operations.
All were careful to mention Enbridge would be shouldering the full costs of the efforts, from paying for additional crews to reimbursing $2 million U.S. in emergency funding. As well, the company likely will face numerous environmental fines on local, municipal and federal levels.
Enbridge would not comment on how much the incident would cost other than to say it would "spend what ever is needed."
Reports that the 40-kilometre oil slick had breached booms around Morrow Lake, considered a last line of defence before emptying into Lake Michigan, were dispelled by both Enbridge and the EPA.
"We have flown over it, we've had boats on it, we have had scientific instruments in those boats and we could not detect the presence of oil in the lake," Dollhopf said.