PHMSA warns climate change threatens pipelines, citing Michigan example

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

The deluge of water gushing through Sanford, Midland and nearby communities was not the only release to follow the failures of a pair of central Michigan dams on May 19, 2020. 

The forceful water scoured and washed away roads, including one that surrounded a 4-inch Consumers Energy Co. steel gas distribution pipeline in Edenville Township. 

The Tittabawassee River flows over its banks, filling a low plain along downtown Midland on May 20, 2020.

That pipeline was severed because of heavy rain fall, according to reports from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal body charged with overseeing the transportation of energy and other hazardous materials. It released 461,304 cubic feet of natural gas, a "significant" event that cost roughly $4 million, according to a PHMSA report

The incident serves as a warning to pipeline operators across the country, PHMSA officials said in June when it issued a notice encouraging owners to shore up their pipelines against increasingly unstable conditions. 

"Changing weather patterns due to climate change, including increased rainfall and higher temperatures, may impact soil stability in areas that have historically been stable," PHMSA officials wrote in the June 2 bulletin. "These phenomena can pose a threat to the integrity of pipeline facilities if those threats are not identified and mitigated."

Flood damage to Michigan Highway 30 is seen at Wixom Lake in Michigan, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, where floodwaters took out the bridge.

Mohammad Najafi, director of the Center for Underground Infrastructure Research & Education at the University of Texas at Arlington and founder of the ASCE Journal of Pipeline Systems, agreed with PHMSA's warnings that climate change jeopardizes underground pipelines.

"Extreme weather conditions like the fires, the hot weather, the flooding and the soil erosion due to flooding," all exacerbated by a warming climate, threaten to melt plastic pipes and wash away the supportive soil around pipes no matter what material they're made from, he said. 

Roughly 95% of a pipeline's support structure is soil, he said. He cautioned pipeline owners to increase their inspection of pipelines, including going into the field for visual inspections after storms and natural disasters. 

He also said pipelines should be re-routed away from places likely to experience more erosion, such as the sides of hills, and be inspected more carefully by state and federal authorities. 

"Underground isn't just the pipe," Najafi said. "It's the soil around it. If the soil is gone, then the pipe is exposed and then there is no support. It can break after that, or it can defect. It basically cannot support itself."

A photo shows the Edenville left embankment breach at 9:04 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Consumers does not attribute the severed pipeline in Edenville Township to climate change, company spokesman Brian Wheeler said. He placed the blame on the failed Edenville and Sanford dams.

"We have not experienced pipeline damage that we can attribute to erosion from climate change," Wheeler said in a statement touting the company's regular inspection of 30,000 natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines. "We believe climate change is real and will continue to draw in the best guidance from experts about what it might mean for our natural gas system in Michigan."

While they said unusual weather played a role in the failure, an independent forensic team in May said it was a "foreseeable and preventable" event caused by a mix of problems with the dams' construction, maintenance and oversight, as well as the state and federal system for financing, designing, building, operating, evaluating and upgrading dams.

More:Independent report pinpoints causes of 'preventable' 2020 Midland dam failures

Consumers announced in early July it will spend $170 million on its natural gas distribution system funded by a 5.8% increase on customer's monthly bills. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the figure in early July after negotiating a 39% reduction of the company's initial request. The spending is part of Consumers' $2 billion plan to replace 2,600 miles of natural gas pipeline.

DTE Energy Co. declined a request for an interview about climate change and pipeline safety.

"PHMSA's advisory bulletin serves as a reminder to focus on safety, and at DTE Energy, the safety of our employees, customers and the communities we serve is our top priority," utility spokeswoman Megan Bonelli wrote in a statement. "We monitor our pipelines 24/7 and utilize robust programs, such as our Integrity Management programs to identify potential pipeline safety risks, including those caused by climate change. These programs help protect the integrity of DTE’s pipelines to ensure safe, reliable service."