Mackinaw City — Along a private road flanked with security guards, Enbridge Energy staffers were storing 350,000 gallons of water Thursday in a huge covered tank in preparation for a federally required pipeline pressure test.
The temperature has to match that of the icy Straits of Mackinac water before staffers for the Canadian-owned energy company can begin an eight-hour test Saturday to ensure Line 5 is fit for operation. Employees will test one of the two pipelines Saturday and the other a week from Friday.
The 64-year-old twin pipes pump 23 million gallons of mostly oil and some natural gas a day under the straits and are the target of environmental groups and others who worry about a possible oil spill. In 2010, an Enbridge line near Marshall ruptured and dumped more than a million gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River, making it the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
Enbridge officials said the tests should put to rest fears about the fitness of the aging pipes and the need for further safety review. At a March meeting of the state Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, protesters repeatedly shouted “Shut it down” during a company presentation requested by board officials about a “loss of coating” discussed in an Enbridge report about pipeline coating and anti-corrosion measures.
Enbridge officials said at the time that the report was discussing a problem with an external wrap on the pipes, not its actual coating. They said they had seen virtually no loss of metal in the pipelines.
Enbridge will pump a section of the line with high-pressure water for the first time since 1953, when it was installed. It is designed to test whether the pipe can still withstand the same pressure as when it was new — more than twice its average operating pressure.
“It shows you hold that pressure; none of it got away,” said Blake Olson, operations supervisor in Escanaba.
Officials from the Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal pipeline safety agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are overseeing the test.
But environmentalists argue recent revelations that stretches of the pipeline that didn’t have required supports in years past mean the line should be shut down until a third party can study it. They say long sections didn’t have anchoring supports along the bottom of the strait for undetermined amounts of time, subjecting the pipelines to possible damage from the strong currents.
Inspections by Enbridge Energy Partners have found more than 200 cases where sections of the pipeline had no support at the lake bottom or anchors. A 1953 state easement requires that no section longer than 75 feet go unsupported.
Last summer, the company said an inspection with a remote submarine showed four sections were unsupported beyond that limit after similar spacing issues were revealed after a 2014 inspection. At the time, Attorney General Bill Schuette agreed that they violated the state agreement, and Enbridge installed more than 40 steel anchors.
The company plans this summer to install 22 new anchors along the bottom of the pipe.
Still, environmentalists, including a former Dow Chemical engineer, say it should be shuttered until an independent party can review it because of the company’s past lack of transparency, including withholding a contractor report about the missing supports.
“I’ve never called for shutdown,” said Ed Timm, the retired engineer. But after seeing the latest disclosure, “the ethical thing for me to do is to change my position and say it should be shut down until the thing could be strip-searched ... with full cooperation from Enbridge.
“There’s just so much we don’t know about this,” Timm said.
Lines tested for pressure, leaks
On Saturday, Enbridge officials will pump millions of gallons of water through a section of Line 5 to see if it can withstand more than twice the maximum pressure that the state expects it to handle. They also will check for leaks.
The Canadian oil transport company will review a similar section along the second of the twin pipes next Friday, said Matt Fournier, a project manager for Enbridge who’s overseeing test safety.
The pipe will be tested at 1,200 pounds per square inch for four hours, then drop the pressure to test for any leaks for another four hours. If any issues arise, they will restart the test and make any repairs to the pipe.
“We do not expect any issues during the hydro test,” Fournier said.
In August, Enbridge will send a crew of divers to test for any potential coating damage from invasive mussels that cling to the surface and can weaken it over time. The U.S. Department of Justice requires the tests as part of the Kalamazoo River consent decree reached last year that required Enbridge to pay $177 million.
The company also regularly uses a remote-controlled submarine, video feed along the pipe and other mechanisms to check for cracks, leaks or damage along the pipe.
“We’re constantly checking to make sure,” Olson said.
Higher-pressure testing urged
But critics said the test isn’t sufficient.
“It does demonstrate the line is pretty solid,” Timm said. “It demonstrates the line will withstand the pressure it could when it was installed.”
But he said a better test exists called a “volumetric hydro test to yield,” which involves pumping water at far greater pressures — around 2,400 pounds per square inch — until the pipe begins to swell before easing off on the pressure.
“I can say based on a track record Enbridge has ... it’s hard to have confidence in anything that Enbridge does and be able to take it to the bank,” said David Holtz with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club.
“The state has a responsibility to make sure that those pipelines are in a condition that doesn’t cause a rupture,” Holtz said. “And they’re relying totally and completely on Enbridge’s representations of that, and that really isn’t reassuring.”
A group called “Keep our Lakes Great” is pushing a petition drive and potential ballot proposal to stop the company from pumping crude oil through Line 5. The state Board of Canvassers approved the petition drive language in April and the group plans to collect signatures.