Is a pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac dangerous? The company that owns and operates it says not, but environmentalists say they're worried. It's a complicated issue, tied to a part of Michigan's economy that's continuously increasing - the transportation of fuel.
So what it's all about?
Federal lawmakers and environmental groups are increasingly concerned about two 61-year-old petroleum-carrying pipelines, owned and operated by Enbridge Energy Partners of Canada, running through the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Last year, the federal government OK'd an increase in the amount of oil transported through the pipeline, by about 2 million gallons a day. Enbridge says the pipeline is in good repair, but environmentalists say that because of the pipe's location — in deep water with strong currents, iced over for part of the year — a spill or leak could prove disastrous. This summer, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette ordered Enbridge to install additional pipeline supports. The original specs required supports every 75 feet, and some spans of the pipeline exceeded that distance unsupported.
Enbridge. Aren't they ...?
Yes. Enbridge is the company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. In 2010, an Enbridge-operated pipeline in Calhoun County burst, spilling about 843,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. A National Transporation Safety Board report on the spill found that Enbridge had found defects in the pipe in 2005, but did not believe the problem was critical. The company didn't respond to the 2010 rupture for 17 hours because employees charged with monitoring the pipe didn't believe alarms indicating the break were genuine. Nor did the company have adequate personnel or resources on hand to respond, the report found.
Recently, a "pinhole leak" in a stretch of the pipeline in the Upper Peninsula allowed some amount of liquid natural gas to escape. The company said there was no impact on the environment.
None of this eases environmentalists' fears about the pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.
What happens to pipelines?
They get old. As pipes age, cracks and corrosion can cause ruptures. Old or poorly done welds can create weak spots. Pipes can also be damaged by digging, or theft.
But we're prepared, right?
Uh, not so much. The U.S. Coast Guard told Free Press reporter Keith Matheny back in September that they're "not adequately equipped or prepared" for a heavy oil spill in the Great Lakes. That's the bad news. The good news is that first responders for a hypothetical Great Lakes oil spill are aware of these problems, and are developing a plan for action. Considering Michigan's increasing role in petroleum transportation, this should be a top priority.
What happens next?
Schuette and Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant have put together a task force to study how safe Michigan's petroleum pipelines are, and to evaluate the state's response capacity.
Detroit Free Press