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Potential Spillage in the Straits?

mackinac bridgeThe Straits of Mackinac, the narrow waterway that connects Lake Huron to Lake Michigan is home to unparalleled iconic Michigan beauty: vistas of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge and treasured vacation getaways. It is also the site of a conflagration between Michigan environmental regulators and activists and a large Canadian energy company.

Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a subsidiary of Enbridge Inc., headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, is the owner of two oil pipelines that lie at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality maintains that the two pipelines are potentially unstable and could be prone to breakage, which could cause substantial environmental and economic damage to the area.

The two pipelines, which were installed in 1953, are 20 inches in diameter and are the conduit for 23 million gallons of crude oil daily. They are part of what is called Line 5 and they carry oil from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. Line 5 is a component of the larger Lakehead pipeline system which traverses Canada and the northern United States.

There have been other significant oil spills from pipelines in other parts of the U.S. Surely adding consternation to the DEQ is a 2010 oil pipeline rupture in Marshall, Michigan, that damaged the Kalamazoo River and nearby waterways. That rupture caused a spillage of 840,000 gallons of crude oil. The owner of that pipeline: Enbridge, Inc.

Federal officials were quite critical of Enbridge in their report of the 2010 incident. That oil spill, according to the published report of the National Transportation Safety Board, was preventable. Furthermore, when the spill occurred, Enbridge delayed action that exacerbated the extent of the spill.  Then Chairman of the NTSB Deborah A.P. Hersman likened the Enbridge employees to “Keystone Kops” as they failed to notice the rupture and continued to pump oil.

The 2010 oil spill resulted from cracks in the pipeline. Enbridge was aware of the cracks as early as 2005 and did not repair them. There have been other, less publicized, breaks in the Lakehead system, including a 1988 spill in the Clinton River.

Regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines is convoluted at best. The pipeline system is under the aegis of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is a sector of the U.S. Department of Transportation. PHMSA is a relatively small government entity, with reportedly just 500 employees. Environmental activists maintain that PHMSA is inadequate to the task of inspecting and enforcing pipeline compliance. Hersman in her report blamed not just Enbridge but improper regulation, specifically allowing pipeline operators to inspect and report on their self-inspections, rather than relying on governmental oversight.

The Straits of Mackinac are of great importance to the Michigan economy. Not only is Mackinac Island a favorite tourist destination, but the recreational and commercial fishing in the area is also an economic mainstay. Additionally, the area would be very difficult to clear in the case of a catastrophic oil spill. The currents are known to be swift, the water is particularly deep and clean-ups would have to be delayed during the long periods of the winter when the Straits are ice-covered.

In order to allay concerns, Enbridge will allow Michigan Technological University to operate an underwater vehicle outfitted with a digital camera to descend to the pipeline and photograph it. Most likely, the vehicle will not be able to detect cracks. In addition, Enbridge plans to add support anchors below the pipelines in August. The installation is scheduled to take 90 days. The DEQ maintains that supports of the pipelines should be installed every 75 feet. Currently, there is a 140 foot span with no supporting anchors.

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