DNR says Enbridge violated law when it waited more than a year to report 2019 spill near Fort Atkinson

The state Department of Natural Resources wants to know why a Canadian oil company waited more than a year to report a spill that may have affected soil and groundwater in Jefferson County. 

Enbridge Energy failed to report a spill in early 2019 for more than a year even though the company was well aware that a large amount of an oil substance had been released near Fort Atkinson, in south-central Wisconsin. A letter of violation for waiting to report the spill was issued by the DNR on April 27. 

The violation letter says it appeared clear in 2019 that the company needed to inform the state of the spill, per state law. 

Enbridge told the DNR that a whistle alarm alerted the company to a spill on April 26, 2019. After that, the company collected samples from around the pipeline to determine where the leak was coming from. It wasn’t until May 17, 2019, that the leak was identified as coming from a faulty elbow joint and stopped. The valve was replaced June 2, 2019. 

The company excavated the site three times, removing enough soil to indicate a hazardous spill, documents show, but the leak was not reported to the DNR until July 31, 2020. In November, the company reached the conclusion that 29 to 33 barrels of diluent, which is used to dilute heavier oils for easier transportation, had been released. The company now estimates that more than 1,200 barrels of the substance were released to the environment during the time it took to identify and stop the leak. 

Enbridge will meet with DNR employees on May 17 to discuss the spill and why the company failed to notify the state of the spill. 

The company could be fined up to $5,000 per day of violation, according to the DNR-issued letter.

Ronni Monroe, a local pipeline safety advocate in Jefferson County, said it has become clear that Enbridge needs to be more closely monitored, especially after this spill. 

“We have an enormous pipeline corridor slicing through Wisconsin and it hasn’t gotten the attention it should,” she said. “It’s clear that Enbridge delayed in submitting notification of the spill. In all honesty, this situation should have been dealt with a lot earlier.”

Residents have continually expressed their worry over the amount of time Enbridge took to report the spill, saying that it is becoming harder to trust the company as a good neighbor. There are hopes that Enbridge will learn from its mistakes with this spill, and work to be more transparent and honest about its operations, good and bad. 

“Enbridge violated the public trust, and that is not acceptable,” Monroe said. 

Line 13, also known as the Southern Lights Pipeline, starts in Manhattan, Illinois, and runs through Wisconsin and Minnesota, delivering products to Enbridge’s Edmonton terminal in Alberta, Canada. The line transports 180,000 barrels per day of petroleum diluent. 

The spill took place near Fort Atkinson, near Blackhawk Island Road and Westphal Lane, close to both the Rock River and Lake Koshkonong. The leak took place on a 68-acre parcel of land that is home to Lines 6, 14, 13 and 61.

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Enbridge in early April was ordered to continue testing around the site of the spill to determine how far the contamination spread, and if it affected groundwater or sent vapors into nearby buildings. The company had already started testing wells and will have to submit a plan for other testing this month. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura