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Complacency and Automation Bias in the Enbridge Pipeline Disaster

November 2016

David Wesley, Luis Alfonso Dau


This article summarizes how pipeline operators misjudged alarms in the system that could have prevented the severe oil spill in Marshall, MI. Line 6B carried heavy-crude oil and was scheduled for a 30-day shutdown in July 2010, but as the shutdown was taking place, alarms went off signaling low pressure. Operators with decades of experience ignored these alarms and continued to pump oil instead of doing an emergency shut down because they were used to these alarms going off during shutdowns and to them were likely a false alarm. The alarms were actually signaling the leak in the pipeline that would cause billions of dollars in damage and be the largest inland oil spill in US history. This is “automation bias” and is what this article suggests caused the extreme oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

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Policy Implications

After the spill, the National Transportation Safety Board suggested that the best way to prevent a spill like the Line 6B spill from happening again would be more training, but this article suggests that will actually have the opposite effect. It is suggested that operators with more experience and training are more likely to assume their judgment is correct over the judgment of the computer system, and a better solution would be for the National Transportation Safety Board to study and better understand automation bias in industries like oil pipeline operation

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