The Mackinac Straits Pipeline: A Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Posted In: News, Investigative Reporting, State,   From Issue 773   By: Robert E Martin

18th July, 2013     0

Deep beneath the pristine and chilly waters of Lake Superior & Lake Michigan beneath the Mackinac Bridge looms a 60-year old oil pipeline that according to environmental activists is a disaster waiting happen.
 
The pipeline turned 60 years-old this year and is owned and operated by Enbridge, Inc. , of Calgary, Alberta - the same company that owns and operates a pipeline that failed and caused the nation's largest-ever inland oil spill into the Kalamazoo River back in 2010; and the same company that is buying up state land at pennies on the dollar to engage in the equally perilous frenzy of hydraulic fracking to mine natural gas.
 
On its own accord, Enbridge decided to increase the capacity of oil pumped through the pipeline this summer, which many experts agree will unduly stress the line. But most troubling is the fact that this pipeline runs underwater across the Mackinac Straits, where a failure could be utterly devastating to Northern Michigan's coastline, fisheries, and tourism industry, costing the State billions of dollars that it ironically realizes from the millions of dollars it spends on its Pure Michigan marketing campaign.
 
The recent decision to increase the carrying capacity on the pipeline moved forward without any public hearing or period for public comment.  Indeed, according to Beth Wallace, community outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, who co-authored a report authored last fall which appeared in The Review about the danger the pipeline presents to the Straits, it will take considerable public pressure to change how Enbridge is regulated in Michigan, especially given the way influence in Lansing is bought and sold.
 
Who's Minding the Store?
 
Critics rightfully point out that oversight of pipelines is random and up to the whim of the operators whether or not to release information about operations. With more than 67,000 miles of oil & natural gas pipelines in the State of Michigan, Michigan ranks sixth in the nation in the number of pipeline miles, yet some pipelines never get inspected at all.
 
Unlike 16 other states, Michigan leaves the job of regulating oil pipelines to the federal government; but with just 110 inspectors for the entire nation, this amount of staffing to barely enough to handle a complete, let alone thorough job.  Federal rules require companies inspect oil pipelines every five years, but only if their lines cross heavily populated or environmentally sensitive areas. And as one would expect in the post-terrorist hysteria of 911, the public is kept in the dark on whether pipelines get inspected so that terrorists won't 'target them'.
 
Enbridge is the biggest oil pipeline operator in the State and has been responsible for six of the 17 spills deemed significant by federal regulators in Michigan in the past decade, with a total of 2,554 significant oil & gas pipeline accidents occurring nationally that have resulted in 161 deaths and 575 injuries over the past decade.  62 of these pipeline 'accidents' happened in Michigan over the past decade, including the Marshall spill.
 
With the case of the Mackinac Pipeline, Enbridge increased the rate of flow of oil pumped through the pipeline, but did not increase the size of the pipeline.  That Enbridge is allowed to do this with no public hearing or even public notice about the expansion of the Straits pipeline, which known as line No. 5 and runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario, should outrage each citizen of this fine state.
 
According to Wallace, NWF attempts to get maintenance, safety and expansion records through FOIA requests were rejected because of FOIA exemptions for pipeline companies put in place after pipelines were deemed a national security risk after 9/11, as referenced above.
 
Too Many Gray Areas
 
Enbridge's expansion of the pipeline stayed under the radar because the company has not been required by lawmakers to release information about the project. According to Wallace, “With any other pipeline project there has been a permitting process that goes on and for some reason this pipeline has been able to bypass that Presidential Permit alteration process.”
 
Construction of a new pipeline to replace No. 5 would require a presidential Permit through the State Department because the pipeline crosses into Canada. That would require an environmental impact study and public hearings, which is what is being required of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline that is proposed from Alberta to the central United States.  The fate of that pipeline has become a national debate; but apparently much less is required when a company decides to expand the carrying capacity of a 60-year old pipeline traveling under the largest body of fresh water in the world.
 
Of course, Enbridge insists its pipelines are safe, including pipeline No. 5. In a report that appeared in the July 1st edition of Northern Express, Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said that No. 5 was pressure tested prior to the capacity expansion and that particular attention was paid to the section crossing the Straits. He also asserts that the line was constructed to last indefinitely as long as it is regularly inspected and maintained.
 
At the Straits, two pipes that are 20 inches in diameter connect to 30-inch pipes on each shore. The two underwater pipes are laid about 1,300 feet apart and are made of thick steel. Supposedly devices are regularly sent into the pipes to test their integrity and remotely operated underwater vehicles inspect the outside of the line.
 
Critics reject the notion that a company responsible for the Kalamazoo River oil spill can be trusted to run a safe operation elsewhere, particularly in a critical area like the Mackinac Straits.
 
While clean-up for Kalamazoo cost Enbridge around $1 billion, the company's revenue in 2011 was $26.4 billion, enough to dwarf losses from the spill and to easily absorb the $3.7 million federal civil penalty imposed on the company.
 
Can the Expansion Be Reversed?
 
Wallace hopes it isn't too late to bring political pressure on Enbridge to force the company to reverse the capacity increase of the No. 5 line. The NWF would also like to see other steps taken, including requirements that Enbridge station emergency response teams be prepared to act fast if there is a spill. Presently emergency response teams are stationed hours away.
 
The NWF has also called for the 60-year old No. 5 line to be replaced with a new state-of-the-art line of the same size.
 
Opponents insist there must be more transparency and better oversight of the No. 5 line, pointing out that the stakes are too high to trust Enbridge, which is under a federal 'corrective order' because of numerous spills that indeed have occurred on No. 5.
 
Wallace says it is impossible to know what the environmental impacts would be if a massive spill occurred. “You can be as prepared as you want to be, but any spill at that located would be completely devastating,” she notes. “Given how long it took operators to find out about the Kalamazoo spill, what flows into the Straits should a catastrophe occur could eclipse what flowed from the Exxon Valdez.
 
“There needs to be a lot more public support and pressure on Congressional members,” she concludes.

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