The story behind the story of Enbridge’s new ad

Oct 22, 2012 by

Last Sunday, Enbridge launched a new ad campaign in newspapers across Michigan and Indiana. We devoted considerable attention to that first ad, which appeared in the form of a letter by Vice President for Major Projects Execution Mark Sitek. In the letter, Sitek promised:

. . . over the next four weeks we will use space in this newspaper to share project updates and to address some of these questions. We will expand on the purpose of the projects and what community members can expect from us. We will present our process for reaching right-of-way agreements with landowners. We will also provide insight into the regulatory process and requirements guiding the projects’ development.

We eagerly awaited the next installment, ready to assess the quality of the information Sitek would provide. Well, a new ad did in fact appear this Sunday, only it didn’t at all provide any of the information Sitek promised.

In fact, the new ad doesn’t do any of that– so much for Enbridge doing what it says it will do. It isn’t a letter to “neighbors” at all nor is it even much of an attempt to inform. Rather, it’s just a typical feel-good spot, the print equivalent of a television commercial. Here it is, proclaiming “Delivering Energy Safely.”

It reads, in part:

Pipelines deliver the energy Michigan needs to fuel vehicles, heat homes, power manufacturing and grow Michigan jobs. People like Rusty– a life-long Michigan resident and 22-year Enbridge employee– make it possible for Enbridge alone to safely deliver 13% of the nation’s crude oil imports.

In this way, the ad means to put a human, neighborly face on Enbridge’s safe delivery of energy. Right under Rusty’s picture, it says that he is “Committed to safe operation of Line 6B.”

Now we don’t doubt that Rusty Smith is committed to the safe operation of Line 6B. We’re quite sure he is a perfectly decent, hard working man. However, we also couldn’t help but wonder: what exactly does Rusty Smith do at Enbridge? And it turns out, the answer to that question is pretty interesting.

You see, Rusty Smith was the Pipeline Maintenance (PLM) Supervisor at the shop in Marshall in 2010; presumably, he remains in that position today. (We verified his position here and here.) Now, from the NTSB report on the Marshall disaster, we know quite a bit about the PLM supervisor’s role on July 26, 2010.

You will recall that Line 6B ruptured at about 6 pm on July 25. But it wasn’t until 17 hours later that workers from Rusty Smith’s PLM shop finally verified the spill on site. And it was nearly two more hours (at 1:30) before Smith himself arrived on the scene.

Prior to Smith’s arrival, workers on site were using inappropriate measures to handle the spill. Seeking to control the leak source, Smith tried a different measure. From the report:

Working with a six-person crew, the Marshall PLM supervisor [that’s Rusty Smith] constructed an earthen underflow dam, which consists of a mound of soil holding back oil-contaminated water with pipes submerged on the dam side and rising toward the discharge end. The angle of the pipe allows the deeper water in the dam to flow downstream, preventing the contaminated surface waters from flowing into Talmadge Creek.

From the NTSB report’s account, the construction of an underflow dam was an appropriate action under the circumstances. However, while construction on that dam began early in the afternoon, it wasn’t complete until 9 pm (about 27 hours after the rupture). Why did it take so long? Well, it took so long, in part, because Rusty Smith’s shop did not have suitable materials with which to construct such a dam. This is the NTSB’s conclusion about the initial on-site response and the Marshall PLM’s role in it:

In summary, the spill response was hampered by inadequate resources on site; lack of spill response organizations under contract near Marshall, Michigan; and use of spill response equipment that was not appropriate for the environment and weather conditions. These deficiencies were all a result of poor response planning.

Let us be clear here: we’re glad that Rusty Smith is a Michigan resident with a job. But what his story teaches us– and this is the real story behind Enbridge’s latest ad, despite the rosy one they try to tell–is this: Smith’s employer Enbridge did not adequately train him or equip him to handle that spill. In fact, his crew is cited by the NTSB as having made matters worse.

So the new Enbridge ad trying to convince us of their commitment to safety really just raises new questions about that so-called commitment: has Rusty Smith received additional training for the kind of spill that happened in Marshall? Does his shop have more suitable equipment now? How have their response procedures changed? How have their practices changed?

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