|Enbridge defended the safety of its Straits of Mackinac pipeline operation before a standing room crowd in St. Ignace. (Photo: Jim Dulzo/MLUI)|
ST. IGNACE, Mich.—Dean Reid, chair of the Mackinac County Planning Commission, peered at the crowd bristling with questions about the submerged oil pipeline many say could ruin their beloved Straits of Mackinac.
“This is the biggest meeting I’ve every seen here,” he said, plainly surprised at the turnout at the Feb. 5 gathering at the Little Bear East Arena.
But the size of the crowd—200 people on a weekday afternoon in deep winter, in a county with barely 11,000 people—didn’t surprise followers of the pipeline controversy.
Hundreds showed up last summer at a nearby park, next to the Mackinac Bridge, to rally against the line, which daily pumps 22 million gallons of oil and liquid gas beneath the Straits. More recently, three U.S. senators and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration exchanged letters about the pipeline’s safety.
Now many were back, eager to pepper local officials and employees of Enbridge Inc., which operates the 60-year-old Mackinac Line, or Line 5, about what it does to prevent underwater leaks—and how it would contain a significant rupture before it gravely damaged one of Michigan’s most beautiful places.
The Yoopers are hardly alone in their concerns.
Ever since the National Wildlife Federation published Sunken Hazard, in 2012, concern has spread that the Mackinac Line, which carries light crude and distillates from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ont., could ruin the pristine region’s fresh water, wildlife, tourism, beaches, and way of life.
Sunken Hazard followed NWF’s earlier report, Importing Disaster, covering the worst on-land oil spill in American history: the same Canadian firm’s 2010 ruinous release of 800,000 gallons of sticky, very difficult-to-clean-up tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. The study ties the disaster to Enbridge’s long-running record of frequent spills.
Sunken Hazard warns that, given Enbridge’s record, the Mackinac Line’s age, and the extraordinary difficulty of cleaning up submerged tar sands oil, such a leak could inflict even more environmental, health, and economic damage than the Kalamazoo spill, which, three years and $1 billion later, is still being cleaned up.
Last summer, NWF released a video that follows the Mackinac Line’s twin pipes for part of their four-mile run along the Straits’ bottom. It got Reid’s attention.
“Since the Sunken Hazard video was passed on to us from the regional planning commission, we’ve wanted to hear Enbridge’s side of the story,” Reid told the jammed room. “We will hear about their safety, maintenance, and procedures for emergency response.”
Wednesday’s meeting came as some Michiganders continue to push Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow to demand regulatory transparency for the line’s ongoing operation. They want Enbridge to replace the line beneath the Straits with the most advanced pipeline technology, and guarantee it will never carry tar sands oil, which Enbridge calls diluted bitumen or dilbit.
The push meshes with an international campaign to stop a project proposed by Enbridge competitor TransCanada Pipelines Limited: the Keystone XL Pipeline. Like the Kalamazoo pipe, which ruined 30-plus miles of river bottom, XL would carry dilbit, albeit to the Gulf Coast, for refining and worldwide export.
Opponents say Enbridge could use the Mackinac Line for dilbit should Keystone XL fail to win approval. They add that, even if XL is built, the company’s refusal to guarantee Mackinac would never carry dilbit is worrying and disingenuous.
By the end of the meeting it was clear that opponents had more questions than Enbridge managed to answer, and were very—and in several cases loudly—dissatisfied with the situation.
Enbridge Has Its Say
Spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie led off the panel by introducing her company.
Guthrie said Enbridge operates 50,000 miles of pipeline in North America, and ships 2.5 billion barrels of oil and gas products every day. She said her firm offsets its carbon footprint by planting trees to displace greenhouse gases from the energy it uses, and also operates some renewable energy projects.
She added that, unlike the dilbit that so fouled the Kalamazoo River, the Mackinac Line carries products with the consistency of milk that quickly and completely float to the surface. She said Line 5’s steel pipes in the Straits are close to an inch thick and there are no plans to use them for dilbit.
She promised that her colleagues would answer as many written questions as possible, but not discuss the Kalamazoo disaster because that was a very different situation.
Blake Olson, Enbridge’s Escanaba area manager, asserted that given how thick the Mackinac line’s walls are, “They just don’t build them like that anymore.”
Olson said Enbridge supplements the line’s 24-hour computerized pressure monitoring with regular aerial patrols, internal inspections, and emergency drills. He added the pipes’ technical specs far exceeded their operational demands.
“That pipeline is rated to hold pressures of up to 1,700 pounds per square inch, but it operates at a maximum of just 600 psi,” he said.
He also said the twin pipes shut down automatically if their pressure falls.
“That is unique to under the Straits,” he said. “Elsewhere, our shutoffs rely on operators.”
Olson said an electric current running through the pipe prevents corrosion; anchor strike prevention includes pipes buried in shallow waters, and recently, well-marked nautical charts and lighted signs; support brackets keep the line properly grounded; and devices moving through the pipes, divers and remote vehicles moving alongside them track their condition.
“We see no internal or external corrosion, and axial cracks [which caused the Kalamazoo spill] are not a threat because the pipes are seamless,” he said. “And we see no dents, buckles, or gouges under the Straits.
“I’ve lived in the U.P. for 20 years and love the pristine environment here, like we all do,” he concluded, “and an oil release is the last thing we want. We have our own emergency response crews, 1,000 feet of oil booms on each side of the Straits, and equipment stockpiled all along the pipeline.
“And please realize, if something really bad was to happen, we’d call in the cavalry, Marine Pollution Control,” he concluded, before introducing Bill Hazel, an official from that Detroit-based company, known worldwide for containing and cleaning up major oil spills.
Cavalry and County
Hazel said MPC, Enbridge, and local officials must maintain a written plan that is an “evolving document…that realistically describes potential disasters and how all of us would respond.”
He also said federal laws require constantly maintained readiness, a notification process, designation of special concerns, training, and drills to spot, report, and resolve problems.
“The standard is one of continuous improvement,” he said. “Our drills are at least annual, they engage all response readiness stakeholders—federal, state, local, and an Oil Spill Removal Organization, which is MPC. We go out in boats and set booms.
We’ve been doing exercises for 10 years; it is the process for learning.”
Hazel ticked off eight exercises his company, local officials, and Enbridge conducted in the area since 2008. He said that within 18 hours of a serious spill MPC could deploy 30,000 feet of oil containment booms and recover 268,000 gallons of oil.
Mike Casper, Mackinac County’s emergency management coordinator, reinforced the message that rehearsal drills are held to find problems, learn from them, and improve response.
Q & A Time
The panel, led by Guthrie, then dug into the dozens of questions audience members jotted on note cards. Many helped clarify statements the officials had made; some focused on subjects not covered in the presentations, raising some alarm; some went unanswered, prompting protests.
The officials’ most stark admission was that, in a severe winter storm, little could be done to control a spill.
“Winter is much more complex, and mother nature can dictate what can be done,” Hazel observed. “High winds and storms would shut down a response effort,” although crews might be able to cut slots in the ice, “allowing some booms to be inserted.”
Officials also said that Enbridge’s inspection and maintenance records are not public documents because the pipeline is a “critical energy infrastructure.”
They also said that, before the Mackinac Line could pump dilbit, some pipeline equipment would have to be changed, “especially the pumps.”
After pushing by the audience, Enbridge engineer Tom Crew said that, in a worst-case scenario, assuming automatic shut-offs worked correctly, 5,500 barrels of oil could escape into the Straits. That would likely cover 25 square miles of open water, but predicting where it would go is difficult because of the area’s ever-changing wind and water currents.
Enbridge officials also said the Kalamazoo spill led the firm to launch a $4 billion integrity inspection program that digs up, re-inspects and repairs old pipes. Yet they insisted the Mackinac line is in good shape and replacement is unnecessary.
But some Enbridge opponents were alarmed by questions the company did not answer, including:
â–º Since Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River spill was made immensely worse because operators believed for 17 hours they were seeing false alarms and repeatedly restarted pumps, what’s been done to completely eliminate that problem?
â–º Why is there no support structure beneath the pipes where they cross a large, submerged gorge at the bottom of the Straits?
â–º What would Enbridge have to do, in terms of federal regulations, if it decided to start pumping dilbit through the Straits? Would the public be notified?
Reid stopped the meeting at the 100-minute mark, leaving those questions hanging.
There were brief, loud protests from people who asked them, and the meeting ended sourly. It seemed doubtful that Enbridge managed to reassure many people about the Mackinac line.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].