Enbridge’s Record: the Kalamazoo River Disaster, Largest Inland Oil Spill in U.S. History
Michigan residents know Enbridge well. In July of 2010, a rupture in Line 6B, another Enbridge pipeline, spilled 843,000 gallons of oil – “dilbit,” or diluted bitumen -- into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. In that disaster, Enbridge employees delayed for 18 hours before shutting the pipeline down. They were gambling that the alarms and warning signals they observed were due to a bubble in the line, and Enbridge employees even increased pressure in the line to attempt to clear it of bubbles, pushing yet more oil out into the river. In spite of pressure alarms and other signals indicating issues in the pipeline, Enbridge employees restarted the line twice due to control room errors and failure to follow safety protocols. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Cleanup took years, and costs reached over $1 billion; as recently as June of this year Enbridge agreed to pay another $4 millionas part of a natural resource damage settlement.
A similar spill in the Straits would be far, far worse. Releases of oil from Line 5 would have devastating ecological and economic impacts on water quality, fisheries (especially the sport fishing industry), and beaches. The Mackinac Bridge and Mackinac Island, symbols of the Great Lakes, would be severely impacted; beautiful Mackinac Island, site of last week’s Republican conference, would be a disaster zone. The roiling waters and powerful currents would spread the contamination rapidly, and the result would be devastating to the Great Lakes economy.
"An oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would have devastating consequences for people, fish and wildlife, and the economy. It would be an unparalleled disaster for the Great Lakes," said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. "This old pipeline needs to be replaced so that we can protect the Great Lakes from future spills."
Line 5 is vulnerable to corrosion from both inside and outside, yet the outside of the pipes is encrusted with quagga and zebra mussels that make external inspection difficult if not impossible. In 2014, National Wildlife Federation divers discovered that some of the line’s steel supports intended to secure Line 5 to the bottom of the Straits were broken, and others were covered with debris.
But don’t worry, says Enbridge; Line 5 is safe – yet the company refuses to share the results of inspections, describe the inspection protocols used, or allow independent verification of their claims. In fact, Enbridge claims that Line 5 can be operated indefinitely, and it neither has, nor needs to consider, a plan to replace it – a position that independent experts have described as unreasonable.
After the Kalamazoo River disaster, and in the face of growing concerns about Line 5 and other pipelines in Michigan, the Michigan DEQ Director and Attorney General set up a multi-agency task force to study pipeline issues, with a special focus on Line 5. The agency’s report, issued in July of this year, was blunt about Enbridge’s lack of transparency. The agency’s report, issued in July of this yearoffered "conficting, incomplete, and inadequately supported estimates” of its potential liability under a 1953 easement allowing Line 5. Enbridge also estimated a ridiculously inadequate amount of $400 million for response costs in a “worst case” scenario. [see p. 46 of PDF report] Never mind that the costs in the Kalamazoo River spill were over $1 billion. Never mind that remediation of a spill in the Straits would quickly disperse oil throughout the Great Lakes. Never mind that vast areas of Michigan's pristine and priceless Great Lakes beaches would be destroyed.
The 63-page Petroleum Task Force report lists four
Specific Recommendations regarding the Straits Pipelines
1. Prevent the transportation of heavy crude oil through the Straits Pipelines.
2. Require an independent risk analysis and adequate financial assurance for the
3. Require an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing Straits Pipelines.
4. Obtain additional information from Enbridge relating to the Straits Pipelines. [see p. 6 of PDF report]
Considering the usual mealy-mouthed responses of late from the MI DEQ regarding any environmental hazard, these are strong statements. The task force member groups are far from radical, so recommendations like these are exceptional coming from them.
And yet, there are some significant gaps in their analysis. What isn’t in the report? Any facts about or verification of the current condition of Line 5. Enbridge asserts that its test results are “confidential,” in part because the pipeline is a national security issue. We are not even allowed to have independent confidential verification of Enbridge’s self-serving and conclusory statement that that Line 5 is safe.
Also not in the report: any teeth. There is no provision indicating that Enbridge will be required to produce verification of the assertion that this Eisenhower-era pipeline remains “safe,” nor any timeline for addressing the unreasonable risk Line 5 presents.
Some Michigan legislators, including Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, want to see additional inspections; Irwin and several other House Democrats have co-sponsored a package of pipeline safety legislation to give the state more oversight of oil and gas pipelines. The bills are hung up in the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by a Republican, Andrea LaFontaine.
But the Pipeline Report authors don’t go there. At present, as summarized in a recent report in M-Live:
Legally, the state says it would need to obtain a court order for a shutdown by convincing a judge that 1) Enbridge has been in clear violation of the 1953 easement terms or other state laws, 2) There's an "imminent threat" the pipelines will fail and 3) That such a threat "outweighed any interest in Enbridge continuing to operate the pipeline."
See the Catch-22? How do we know whether Line 5 is in danger of failing if Enbridge refuses to provide information on the results of its inspections and refuses to allow independent verification of their results and evaluation of the protocols used?
David Holz, chair of Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club, has little patience for these maneuvers:
"If you believe these existing pipelines pose an immediate threat to the Great Lakes — and we do — the task force recommendations amount to a rearranging of deck chairs on Michigan's Titanic of oil pipelines."...
"What is needed, and needed now, is to shut down Line 5."
Pressure to shut down Line 5 is growing. Environmental groups have held protests at the state capitol; mayors have written to Governor Snyder. Even Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has said the pipeline’s days are “numbered.” He admits that if pipeline construction were proposed today, the pipeline “likely” would not be built.
“A part of the struggle with this issue is the lack of transparency,” according to Liz Kirkwood of Flow For Water, a Traverse City non-profit. Yet Enbridge’s operational plan claims the twin lines are in excellent condition, and they have say they not seen any deterioration requiring repair activities.
In the meantime the U.S. Coast Guard and Enbridge, along with other federal, state, and local authorities including the EPA, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Michigan State Police are planning a full-scale spill drill to be conducted September 22-25. This, despite the Coast Guard’s prior admission that it lacked the resources to respond effectively to a spill of heavy crude oil in the Great Lakes~!
It is difficult to understand exactly why Enbridge would continue to play such a high-stakes game with this vulnerable and aging asset. Howard Learner of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, points out that Line 5 is also a substantial economic risk for Enbridge, as well as a substantial ecological and economic risk to Michigan. In a sane world, given the catastrophic level of risk, and given Enbridge’s atrocious safety history and their refusal to allow any independent verification of Line 5’s condition, Line 5 would be shut down immediately.
Unfortunately, it looks like Enbridge plans to continue claiming that Line 5 is just hunky-dory, that their inspections show the line is completely safe -- until one day it isn’t. For now they are standing pat, hoping that a showy “spill drill” complete with boats, drones, and spiffy Coastie helicopters will reassure everyone. Nothing to see here, folks, trust us.
Can you imagine losing this? (Overlooking Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes in the distance)
BREAKING NEWS THIS MORNING:
Sens. Stabenow and Peters have introduced federal legislation to bring about safety inspections of existing pipelines--and more:
With a safety drill of a controversial pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac under way this week, Michigan's U.S. senators this morning announced legislation requiring a comprehensive review of hazardous materials pipelines in the region and banning shipments of crude oil by vessels plying the Great Lakes.
U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, introduced the bill today. If passed, it would also require an assessment of the current status of oil spill response plans in the Great Lakes and force federal officials to consider expanded new criteria for identifying areas where spills could present an additional environmental risk, requiring higher standards for pipelines in those areas, including across the Great Lakes basin.
While at present no crude oil is transported by vessel on the Great Lakes, the legislation would write such a prohibition into federal law, turning back a number of plans to potentially ship oil by barges or tankers across the Lakes because of limited pipeline capacity.
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