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Patrick Daniel, president and CEO of Enbridge, prepares to address the company's annual meeting in Calgary, May 11, 2011.

Canadian pipeline builder Enbridge reported a leak from one of its pipelines on the day public hearings began into the company's planned Northern Gateway pipeline.

U.S. pipeline regulators told Enbridge about the possible leak. A subsequent helicopter over-flight discovered a metre-wide patch of bubbles over the company's Stingray pipeline, which can carry 560-million cubic feet a day of natural gas from offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico. The bubbles were found about 100 kilometres from the Louisiana coast.

Enbridge plans to keep the pipeline running until it can get a dive boat in to inspect the pipe – that should happen by week's end, although it is weather dependent. If it's broken, it will then make repairs.

"We've determined that it is safe to continue operating and so we are doing that," said spokeswoman Terri Larson.

Enbridge declined to describe how it could be safe to continue operating a pipeline that may be leaking.

The possible leak comes at a difficult time for the company, which has sought to reassure first nations and environmental groups that it is a safe operator amid an uproar over the potential for spills from its Northern Gateway pipeline.

Natural gas is far different from oil in its potential for environmental damage in the case of a leak. But Enbridge has experienced a series of spills in the past two years, which have undermined its arguments on safety.

The biggest took place in late July, 2010, when some 20,000 barrels of oil – 3.2-million litres – spilled from a rupture in a stretch of Michigan pipe that was built more than four decades ago. Images from that spill quickly spread across northern British Columbia, and, for many, brought home the risk of crude oil spilling into water. About 8,000 barrels from that pipe leaked into the Kalamazoo River.

Enbridge also had oil spill from a pipe in Illinois, which appeared to be related to shoddy construction work by another company, as well as from a different pipe in the Northwest Territories.

At the same time, Enbridge's competitor TransCanada Corp. has had leaks and spills from pumping stations along its newly installed Keystone pipeline. TransCanada has said the leaks were teething problems as it brought a complex system into operation. But Mike Klink, a civil engineer who worked as a contract inspector for the company, has pointed to potentially much more serious problems. In the Journal Star newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, he alleged use of "cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, [and]fudged safety tests."

TransCanada has denied those allegations. Still, its problems with Keystone – which, like the proposed Gateway, is a new pipe, using the latest technology – have made critics question whether modern pipelines really are safer.

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