Three environmental accidents straddling the U.S.-Canadian border during the past 15 months have revived longstanding questions about the ability of the two countries to protect water supplies in emergencies in Metro Detroit and elsewhere.
Officials from both nations agreed there was confusion last year when a dredge sinking in U.S. waters north of Port Huron leaked diesel fuel and another loading cargo in Sarnia, Ontario, leaked ethyl benzene into the St. Clair River. A rupture nearly five weeks ago in an underground pipe in Sarnia that released diesel fuel into the St. Clair also prompted criticism about post-accident communications.
The waterway from the lower half of Lake Huron down the St. Clair River to Detroit contains several intake pipes that provide drinking water to communities in both countries. In worst-case scenarios, when accidents and spills aren’t reported promptly, those communities can’t close the pipes in time to keep contaminated water from reaching the public.
Following last month’s Sarnia diesel leak, Ontario’s New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horvath had harsh words for the spill response.
“Thousands of residents in Wallaceburg and Walpole Island First Nation depend on the St. Clair River for their drinking water,” Horvath said on the floor of the Ontario legislature six days after the spill.
“Shockingly, this isn’t the first time that they’ve had their drinking water contaminated by chemical spills. Worse yet, the warning system failed people — needlessly exposing children and elders to contaminated drinking water for several hours.”
Since July 2012, Michigan officials have been looking to improve their environmental emergency communication system. The biggest change is likely to go into effect in coming months, they said.
Environmental accident information is sent through Michigan’s Pollution Emergency Alerting System. For years, emergency calls — from the public, law enforcement or government agencies in Canada — were handled by a call center staffed by private contractors. In many cases, the call-takers were unfamiliar with the technical terms used to describe environmental accidents, and calls consequently were often prioritized poorly or handled more slowly than was warranted, saidBruce Van Otteren, administrator of Michigan’s PEAS.
In the coming months, a team of trained Department of Environmental Quality staffers will begin handling those calls internally on a 24/7 basis, he added. An automatic “smart messaging” system then will forward incoming information to emergency responders, U.S. and Canadian government officials and water plants down the line. Each stage of communication would require notifications of receipt, ensuring the right people are getting the message.
Canadian officials aren’t planning any changes of their own.
“I think it’s fair to say we are confident in our role in the notification protocol,” said Kate Jordan, an Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokeswoman. “We are certainly open to working with Michigan authorities on any changes they feel are necessary.”
Areas of concern
The St. Clair River is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Areas of Concern list for locations that have experienced “environmental degradation.” Spills and accidents along the Port Huron-to-Detroit stretch and combined sewage overflows contribute to the situation, as do shipping traffic and development of land. And the area is home to Chemical Valley — a string of industrial operations along the river that regularly discharge chemicals into the water.
The recent spills have drawn attention to U.S.-Canada environmental emergency procedures dictated by a 25-year-old four-paragraph agreement signed by then-Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and Ontario Premier David Peterson. Essentially, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment is supposed to call the Michigan State Police and vice versa when things go wrong.
A year ago, on the heels of the two ship-related incidents, a binational panel focused on the emergency reporting and found the system to be lacking.
“Both (countries) reported that in the initial stages of the incidents, there was considerable confusion in the details reported to their agencies,” according to the minutes from a September 2012 meeting of the St. Clair River Binational Public Advisory Council. “Misinformation is common in these types of incidents, and it takes some time to collect accurate information from the scene before notices can be distributed to stakeholders.”
Sun-Canadian’s underground pipeline burst under the streets of Sarnia on Sept. 10, and some of the 200 barrels of diesel fuel released reached the St. Clair River.
“Our monitoring system immediately alerted us to this issue, and we responded by closing the line within three minutes,” said Melanie Paradis, a spokeswoman for the pipeline company, in a written response to questions. “We immediately contacted the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and the Eastern Canada Response Corporation spill response team and initiated our emergency response team. Following the closure of the line we worked with the appropriate authorities to communicate with our neighbors, including the Aamjiwnaang and Walpole Island First Nation, Sarnia, Wallaceburg and St. Clair Township.”
Information flows slowly
But the communities involved complained. More than a week after the spill, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley questioned why early reports on the spill were inaccurate.
“Sarnia police issued a news release saying the fuel had not reached the river,” he was quoted saying.
Farther down the river on the U.S. side, Jeff Friedland of St. Clair County’s emergency management department said other than an early text message noting a spill in Sarnia with few details, his agency did not receive in-depth information until more than 12 hours after the incident.
“At times, there is a lot of frustration because it takes a certain amount of time for industry to do their assessment of the situation,” Friedland said. “But at least give me an awareness that something is happening so I can turn my head in that direction.”
Chuck Bellmore, Mount Clemens’ utilities director, who oversees operations at the city’s water filtration plant, said his operation wasn’t notified of the Sarnia diesel spill until three days after it occurred. For him, the situation represents a ticking time tomb.
“I’m hoping that the efforts from the state to revise the PEAS system will have some impact,” Bellmore said. “And I hope the state is putting some pressure on our friends across the river to step up their reporting efforts as well.”