Enbridge Inc.'s well-deserved public rebuke last month for its historic July, 2010, oil spill into southern Michigan's Kalamazoo River, as well as the $3.7 million federal fine announced earlier, send a stern message to the rest of the oil industry and the government inspectors assigned to regulate it, especially here in the Great Lakes region.
There's also a take-home message of accountability for the Toledo area, a major transportation hub that sits on a web of aging oil pipelines and is home to two major refineries. Ohio and Michigan have more than 3,300 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, which means they share unique responsibilities to protect one of the world's greatest freshwater resources.
The two states have staked their futures on extracting oil from shale rock by means of horizontal, hydraulic fracturing. Even if fracking doesn't yield the economic riches that Ohio and Michigan anticipate, the states now share more responsibilities to protect the groundwater that replenishes the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water, including the Ohio River. That includes better oversight of pipelines.
The tongue-lashing unleashed against Enbridge by angry investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board centered on evidence the company knew at least five years in advance that it had a serious defect in a pipeline near Marshall, Mich. Enbridge not only failed to heed warning signs, its operators also failed to discover or address the leak for more than 17 hours, according to a preliminary NTSB report expected to be finalized soon.
The spill -- in a marshy area about a two-hour drive northwest of Toledo -- was the nation's worst inland oil spill. Nearly 850,000 gallons of oil sickened 320 people, countless wildlife, and cost almost $800 million to clean up.
But it doesn't end there. A second pipeline owned by the beleaguered Canadian oil company failed last month, spilling 50,000 gallons of crude oil in rural Wisconsin. Such buffoonery gives political ammunition to environmentalists who wage war against new pipelines, including the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would pass through large swaths of North America.
State and federal regulators need as much of a gut-check as the industry. Just a few years ago, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety was in such turmoil it did not know where all of the nation's 2.2 million miles of pipelines were located. The agency had, on average, only one inspector for every 50,000 miles of pipe.
Pipelines deliver fuel more efficiently than other modes of transportation. But when miscues occur, it's hard to put faith in Association of Oil Pipe Lines statistics that claim the number of spills from crude oil pipelines are down 70 percent over the past decade, and spill volumes are down 40 percent.
The oil industry and government need to take a proactive approach to safety. There's more at stake than oil-slicked birds and dead fish.