Signals, noise, and eco-disaster at Enbridge

“Learning about Enbridge’s poor handling of the rupture, you can’t help but think of the Keystone Kops,” said Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB. “Why didn’t they recognize what was happening? What took so long?” she said in a statement. She said that despite alarms and pressure differentials, Enbridge staff twice pumped more oil, about 81 per cent of the total release, into the ruptured pipeline. Hersman said that oil gushed from the rupture for more than 17 hours before the leak was discovered.

This is a fair bottom line when it comes to Enbridge’s Line 6B leak, which poured about a million gallons of diluted bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River on July 26, 2010. As an Albertan, with all the prejudices and interests that implies, I’ve been reading primary documents in the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the spill. What I slowly came to understand, to my considerable horror, is that the leak may physically have happened to a bunch of poor bastards in Michigan, but the real problem was here, in Edmonton. This is where pipeline controllers—tired, young, inexperienced pipeline controllers working in a somewhat dysfunctional environment—struggled for long hours to interpret pressure readings as anything but the unthinkable.

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