July 20–MACKINAW CITY — A worst-case spill from Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac could dump more than twice the amount of oil than another Enbridge pipeline did in 2010.
That’s one of many conclusions in a draft risk analysis released to state officials Monday. Michigan Technological University professor Guy Meadows led a team that examined myriad scenarios that involve different types of leaks at different points in the 3.9-mile, twin-span pipeline and under different weather conditions. The scenarios aren’t based on probability, but rather whether such an incident could plausibly happen.
A rupture of both spans could dump 2,436,000 gallons of oil into the straits, according to the study. Calculations show that quantity could fill nearly 182 tanker truck trailers. That also assumes efforts to remotely close pipeline valves fail and it takes two hours to manually close them.
Compare that to the 2010 spill from Enbridge’s Line 6B which dumped more than 1 million gallons of heavy crude oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary, according to an estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Enbridge could face $1.8 billion in liability for the most damaging spill from Line 5, and it could cause more than $1.37 billion in ecological damage, according to the 398-page study — different scenarios would cause various environmental, financial and public health damages.
Tourism, commercial and recreational fishing and wildlife all could take a major blow, even possibly creating a “point of no return” for species loss and local fish and wildlife populations. A leak could foul spawning grounds for lake whitefish, which are prized by commercial fisheries, and hurt migratory birds that stop by in the spring and fall.
“Line 5 cannot remain in the Straits in its current form,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director and Pipeline Safety Advisory Board co-chairman Keith Creagh said in a statement. “This report highlights the need to continue developing a decommissioning strategy that protects the Great Lakes while at the same time maintaining the critical infrastructure between Michigan’s peninsulas that makes us one state.”
Enbridge representatives say the report deals in hypothetical scenarios with very low probability of ever happening. The company keeps several layers of safety systems in place to prevent spills, plus an emergency response team that could jump into action.
Company spokesperson Ryan Duffy said a spill of any amount from the pipeline is too much.
“That’s why our focus is really on prevention, preventing anything like that from happening,” he said.
Line 5 hasn’t released oil in its 65-year history in the straits, Duffy said. Yet the pipeline operator still is working with the state on evaluating possible replacements that would mitigate the risk even further. One such option would be to dig a tunnel beneath the straits and place a pipeline inside — that should cut the risk of an oil release to practically zero.
But pipeline critics say the only way to mitigate the risk Line 5 presents is to shut it down. For Love of Water Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said the study proves the impacts of such a spill would be so colossal that even the very low probabilities don’t negate the unacceptable risk levels.
That risk, plus what Kirkwood asserts are ongoing violations, gives the state legal grounds to revoke Enbridge’s lease on state bottomlands, she said. State public trust laws and a law that governs those bottomlands give state officials the duty to protect the straits and Great Lakes waters from such massive potential harm.
“If there is substantial likelihood of harm to public waters and public trust resources, as there is in this case, that is actionable and requires the state to take action to mitigate that harm,” she said.
Duffy said Enbridge has not violated its bottomlands lease.
The report goes on in great detail, including examining different cleanup scenarios and estimating it could take up to two years to clean up as many as 441 miles of oil-polluted shoreline. It also assesses possible lost tax dollars, public health risks and social perceptions of the pipeline.
It’s one of a handful of reports to emerge in recent months that scrutinizes the controversial stretch of oil infrastructure, part of an agreement the state and Enbridge signed in November. It followed revelations company employees knew for years about missing pipeline protective coating in the straits but didn’t disclose it to the state, which state officials claimed shattered their trust in the company.
Producing the report itself stirred some controversy, first when the original contractor withdrew over revelations the consulting firm had previously and extensively worked with Enbridge.
Meadows also led three studies funded by the pipeline operator, Bridge Magazine reported.
State officials will decide the pipeline’s fate by the end of September, Duffy said — that deadline is also part of the agreement.
Enbridge insists the Superior, Wisc., to Sarnia, Ont., pipeline is a crucial piece of energy infrastructure for Michigan, supplying propane to the Upper Peninsula, crude to downstate refineries and moving oil pumped in the northern Lower Peninsula.
But critics say that benefit is overstated, and vastly outstripped by the risk to not only the straits but hundreds of other inland water crossings.
Kirkwood said Enbrige could move oil and natural gas through other, existing pipelines, something a previous report failed to consider.
“That’s the most viable option for the state and for Enbridge, since they’ve already doubled their capacity on Line 6B after causing the largest inland oil spill,” she said.
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