Letter to President Obama Regarding the Talmadge Creek Oil Spill

Dear Mr. President:

The spill of nearly one million gallons of oil from Enbridge Energy Partners’ pipeline into Talmadge Creek in Michigan on July 26 further demonstrates the necessity for you and Secretary LaHood to pay immediate attention to the hapless, industry-indentured Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), which has been, like the Minerals Management Service, in a long fraternal relationship with its industry.

Following a pipeline explosion in 1965 at Natchitoches, Louisiana, which took 17 lives, engineer Fred Lang and I pressed Congress to pass the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968. Almost immediately, the pipeline industry—both gas and oil—moved to capture it and its advisory committee. The history of OPS has been largely one of self-regulation with standards essentially written by the industry below the needs of safety and the availability of practical technological capabilities.

Today, there are two million miles of pipelines under the jurisdiction of OPS, including many miles offshore. It has never had enough inspectors.

On January 21, 2010, OPS wrote to Mr. Terry McGill, president of Enbridge Energy, that “you have committed a probable violation of Pipeline Safety Regulations, Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.” This tentative charge related to one of the worst nightmares of pipeline safety engineers—internal corrosion. Nonetheless, OPS decided, after reviewing “the circumstances,” “not to conduct additional enforcement action or penalty proceedings at this time.” The agency advised Enbridge “to correct the item identified in this letter.”

Had OPS issued a corrective action order at any time during the first half of 2010, the environmental-water contamination calamity would not have occurred. The creeks and streams would be fishable and a source for drinking water for the nearby communities. The fear of further water contamination toward Lake Michigan would not have been expressed by Michigan’s Governor.

OPS seems not to value “corrective action orders” that are preventive. Instead, they “usually” reserve corrective orders for the period after the “accident, spill, or other significant immediate, or imminent safety or environmental concern.” These words signify OPS’s relaxed response to law enforcement or to policing in ways that deter and preclude.

There are those so-called regulatory agencies, with low general media visibility, that have responsibilities to head off major environmental disasters. Earlier I advised you to pay closer attention to those agencies that are known to be heavily industry-influenced inside and out, including the Federal Railroad Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I hope that you do. You and the country do not need another BP gusher situation that proper regulation could have prevented.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Nader

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