This Aging Oil Pipeline Is In Great Lakes' 'Worst Possible Place' For A Spill

05/22/2015 07:35 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images

Environmental activists say Michigan’s tourism slogan -- “Pure Michigan” -- may no longer be accurate unless the state takes stronger action to prevent a 62-year-old oil pipeline from rupturing in a sensitive waterway.

The pipeline, called Line 5, is owned by the Canadian energy company Enbridge, carrying nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids every day. It passes between the state’s upper and lower peninsulas, along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. East of the pipeline is the iconic Mackinac Bridge, depicted on many of the state’s license plates, and Mackinac Island, an historic, no-cars resort area.

A coalition of local businesses, municipalities, Native American tribes and environmental and conservation advocates -- the “Oil and Water Don’t Mix” coalition -- are concerned that the straits’ strong currents and corrosion-causing forces could cause the pipeline to rupture, creating a catastrophic oil spill that would spread into the Great Lakes, which contain a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

Those who want Enbridge to repair, replace or remove the pipeline have a powerful example of what could go wrong: A newer Enbridge pipeline ruptured in 2010, spilling 1 million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River -- the largest and most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history. Cleanup is ongoing. Enbridge and the state reached a $75 million settlement last week to restore or create damaged wetlands on top of the $1 billion the company has spent to clean up the oil.

Enbridge pipelines experienced more than 1,000 leaks in the U.S. and Canada from 1999 to 2013.

The Line 5 section that runs under the straits is part of Enbridge’s 1,900-mile Lakehead network. It does not carry the heavy bitumen oil drawn from Canada’s oil sands region, which is what spilled into the Kalamazoo River.

For the past year, environmental advocates have demanded more state oversight, through public hearings, press releases and rallies. They cite the fact that it took 17 hours for Enbridge to respond to the Kalamazoo River spill.

The coalition wants Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to subject Enbridge to state laws enacted after the pipeline's construction that contain tougher safety standards. Those laws would force Enbridge to guarantee that continued operation of the pipeline wouldn't impair public uses of the lakes.

A leader in the “Oil and Water Don’t Mix Coalition” is Aaron Payment, the tribal chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who have fishing rights in the straits. Payment said he believes a spill is imminent and could force evacuations of Mackinac Island, home of a number of tribe members, and harm fishing.

“Water is the lifeblood of our Mother Earth; it’s our duty and responsibility as American Indians to protect the environment so we take this threat that the Enbridge pipeline represents personally,” Payment told HuffPost.

The coalition’s major push is for the state to subject the pipeline to the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. The 1955 law demands “the private or public use of such lands and waters will neither substantially affect the public use thereof nor impair the public trust or interest of the state.” The permitting process Enbridge would be subjected to under the act would allow the government to explore whether the company should decommission the pipeline, reroute it or replace it.

The demand for state intervention comes as federal oversight of the oil and gas industry is waning. Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety at the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said in 2013 that the regulatory process he oversees is "kind of dying” because it was unable to enforce federal safety rules with fines. The National Transit Safety Board corroborated that opinion, finding that the agency bore some responsibility for the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill because it delegated too much responsibility to Enbridge to assess its own pipeline's risks.

Safety concerns about Line 5 have been mounting since 2013, when Enbridge upgraded pumps along the pipeline and increased the oil flow by 10 percent (or 2.1 million additional gallons per day).

Last year, Enbridge admitted in correspondence with the state that it had not complied with the state’s original easement requirement that allowed the pipeline to be built. In that agreement, Enbridge said the pipeline would have anchor structures installed every 75 feet along its length at the bottom of the straits to prevent sections from dislodging.

The agreement requires Enbridge hold $1 million in liability insurance for Line 5, but environmental advocates say the requirment should be much higher.

The company declined to respond to questions from HuffPost.

Enbridge agreed to install more anchors, after the state requested. The state attorney general and the Department of Environmental Quality convened a state task force to study permitting issues for pipeline upgrades and replacement and emergency preparedness. The task force is expected to release its recommendations in June.

Those recommendations will arrive just after the high-profile Mackinac Policy Conference. The conference brings nearly 2,000 business, civic and political leaders -- including the governor -- to Mackinac Island from May 26 to May 29. The environmental coalition is planning rallies and public hearings as conference participants arrive to draw attention to the vulnerability of the region to a spill.

Mackinac Island's local government has expressed concerns about the pipeline to Snyder’s administration. In a letter, Mayor Margaret Doud asked Snyder to ensure that the company was in full compliance with the easement and wrote that she “cannot stand by and simply hope the pipelines pose no threat.”

To counter concerns, Enbridge has emphasized the economic benefits of Line 5. The company noted in its presentation before the Michigan government task force last year that 15 percent of total U.S. oil imports arrive via the Lakehead system and that the company pays millions in state taxes each year.

Any leak on the Line 5 pipeline could be isolated in three minutes, the company insists. In testimony to Congress before the 2010 spill, Enbridge vice president for U.S. operations Richard Adams said that the company’s response time could be “instantaneous.”

Gary Street, a chemical engineer affiliated with the Michigan environmental group For the Love of Water who used to work for the Dow Chemical Co., has reviewed what’s publicly accessible about the Line 5 pipeline. But there's not enough public information to show the pipeline's integrity.

“Enbridge will tell you that these lines are as good today as they were when they were put in -- but they don’t share information to back that up,” Street said. “It’s basically, ‘Trust us.’ But nothing lasts forever.”

Street and other engineers said they're especially worried about corrosion. The acidic excrement of a freshwater mollusk, the zebra mussel, may eat away at the protective coating on the pipelines, according to university researchers and government agencies. The NTSB said that the 2010 spill was the result of multiple small corrosion-fatigue cracks that gradually grew together. Street and others said they believe the mollusks could exacerbate that process.

Researchers at the University of Michigan released a simulation last year that used Enbridge’s worst-case scenario of a 1 million gallon spill to demonstrate how quickly currents in the straits could spread spilled oil to Mackinac Island and then onto lakes Huron and Michigan -- just 12 hours, to reach the island, and about a day to reach the the lakes. The study concluded that the Straits are “the worst possible place” for an oil spill in the Great Lakes region.

“While we’ve heard several times that this administration doesn’t want to see another spill on their watch, we haven’t seen great strides or measures taken to protect the waters,” Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For the Love of Water, told HuffPost.

Kirkwood said legal action to force the state to demand more of the company isn’t “off the table,” though the coalition is trying to work collaboratively with the state.

Kelly Thayer, the coordinator of the “Oil and Water Don’t Mix” campaign, said citizens will be forced to lead on the issue if the state government doesn’t.

“We’re doing everything we can to lay out this case and bring public awareness and pressure and to have the state be the hero, that’s what we want,” Thayer said. “Soon we’ll know if that’s what the attorney general and the governor want, too.”

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