Bad maintenance as destructive as terrorism

Dec. 12, 2007
A recent pipeline explosion is just another disaster on U.S. soil that could have been prevented by solid maintenance practices, writes Paul Studebaker, Editor in Chief.

As the latest in a series of events that includes flooding New Orleans, neglecting Walter Reed Army Medical Center and collapsing the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis, the November 28 explosion on a major Canadian-U.S. crude-oil pipeline showed once again that terrorists would be hard-pressed to match the damage we can do to ourselves with engineering, maintenance and management mistakes.

The explosion killed two maintenance workers. Then it spooked speculators into raising oil prices by more than $3 a barrel to $95 on November 29. Those of us in the rapidly-freezing Midwest were terrorized by loose talk of fuel oil and gasoline shortages, and only somewhat reassured when U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson Megan Barnett promised to consider tapping the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Later that day, oil futures investors discovered that the incident would have no appreciable effect on U.S. supplies because the pipeline was already shut down for maintenance and would be back in service in three days. Just in case, OPEC announced plans to step up production by half-a-million barrels a day, more than enough to cover any deficit. (Oil exporters don’t want the United States to learn how to do without.)

Less than 48 hours after the explosion, oil prices dropped below $90 a barrel, among the biggest, fastest drops since 2005.

The two human casualties, Enbridge Energy Partners maintenance workers Dave Mussati Jr. and Steve Arnovich, were performing scheduled maintenance on the underground pipeline. Workers had successfully replaced a segment of pipe that had a pinhole leak when the explosion occurred.

At the time of this writing, the cause of the explosion hasn’t been determined. If it follows the usual root-cause analysis pattern, it will turn out to be a breach of procedure blamed at least in part on a system that doesn’t adequately prevent such a breach – in layman’s terms, someone made a mistake and no one caught it in time.

Maybe what the United States really needs is a Department of Homeland Integrity to go along with our Department of Homeland Security. We could invest some of the billions of dollars we spend trying to fend off external threats on educating people about the costs and value of sound infrastructure, the payback on sound maintenance practices and the indispensable roles of reliability-enforcement personnel including facility managers, engineers and technicians.

The Corps of Engineers could become the core of a national effort to recruit, train and employ an army of experts to search out, identify and exorcise the structural and procedural deficiencies that daily threaten the well-being of our citizens.  We’d save lives, improve our environment, and increase the efficiency of our infrastructure. If we did it right, we ought to be able to make a profit.

Who’s with me?