Calvin Sandborn is legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.
In July 2010, an Enbridge oil pipeline ruptured near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Three million litres of oil spilled into the river, causing extensive damage, killing fish and wildlife, and leading to the evacuation of local homes. The spill cost $800 million to clean up – the most expensive onshore spill in U.S. history.
It looks like one of the biggest victims of this spill will be Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. But the more important lesson is being missed. For the Michigan disaster highlights Ottawa’s supreme folly – dismantling our environmental laws at the same time as it approves dramatic expansions in resource industries.
Last month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a scathing report on the Kalamazoo spill, concluding:
-Enbridge failed to fix the corroded pipe for five years, even though they knew about the corrosion problem.-For 17 hours after the spill started, Enbridge ignored alarms and proper procedures and continued to pump new oil into the broken pipe. This new oil made up 81 per cent of the total spill. Enbridge stopped pumping only after a bystander told the company of the oil escape.
-Enbridge mishandled what could have been a relatively minor spill due to “pervasive systemic problems” within the company.
The chairwoman of the NTSB summed it up succinctly. She likened Enbridge’s response to the spill to the Keystone Kops, the spectacularly inept bunglers of silent film fame.
It is important to note that the U.S. findings bear directly on the Stephen Harper government’s radical policy of deregulating the environment.
Reviewing the Michigan incident, the NTSB focused on how essential it is for governments to vigorously regulate industry. Its report identified “weak federal regulations” on pipeline corrosion as a cause of the initial spill. And it cited lack of enforcement staff as a cause of the botched cleanup. For example, the government’s lack of staff meant nobody scrutinized the company’s spill-response plan – and missed the little detail that the closest spill response contractor was out of state and more than 10 hours away.
The NTSB chairwoman blamed a weak regulatory regime that allows private companies to police themselves.
But there is also regulatory culpability. Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Victoria Times Colonist website: http://www.timescolonist.com/technology/Lessons+from+Kalamazoo+Will+Harper+listen/7078704/story.html