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'Dangerous' pipeline tampering incident not reported to federal safety regulators

In a grainy, digital image, a protester cranks a manual shutoff valve at a facility on Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil pipeline last month.
Up Hell's Creek Camp
Protesters gathered at an exposed section of the pipeline on Oct. 19, and one of them took a wrench to a manual shutoff valve.

Despite describing an incursion on its Line 5 oil pipeline last month as “dangerous” and “criminal,” the pipeline operator Enbridge Energy did not file a report to the federal agency that tracks pipeline safety problems.

Protesters gathered at an exposed section of the pipeline on Oct. 19, and one of them took a wrench to a manual shutoff valve. Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company’s control center shut down the flow of oil before the protester actually started cranking on the valve.

Now, the FBI is investigating, but federal pipeline safety regulators remain in the dark about exactly what happened.

That’s because federal regulations only require certain safety problems to be reported if they last more than 5 days. Duffy said the problems caused by the demonstrators “did not meet the criteria for a report.”

Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, called the 5-day rule “a loophole that drives us crazy.” He said the trust has been urging legislators and regulators for close to a decade to require reporting of all safety problems regardless of how long they last.

Caram said emergency valve shutoffs can over pressurize and weaken pipelines. He said the October incident on Line 5 is an example of a situation that should trigger a report but was exempt from current reporting rules.

“The unplanned closure of a valve is a condition that could lead to an imminent hazard. We believe regulators should know when these kinds of potential imminent hazards have happened on a pipeline,” Caram said.

“It doesn’t matter that it was fixed within five days or not. Just the fact that it happened makes it worth reporting.”

Small problems that go unreported can swell into bigger problems, said Caram—like last month’s oil spill off the coast of California.

Duffy said Line 5 remains safe, and Enbridge “did keep PHMSA [the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] updated on what happened” during the pipeline incursion. He did not answer follow up questions about what the company told the administration in those updates.

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