Activists pan pipeline report in call for closure

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Holt — Environmental activists on Thursday dismissed a technical assessment of alternatives to Enbridge Energy Inc.’s Line 5 dual pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac, arguing the findings are flawed and underestimate the potential of a Great Lakes oil spill.

Roughly two dozen protesters gathered outside Holt High School ahead of a public presentation by Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc. The Calgary-based firm wrote a preliminary report released last week suggesting the 64-year-old straits pipeline could operate indefinitely without significant additional risk.

“This report is the oil industry’s version of protecting the Great Lakes,” said David Holtz, chairman of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter and campaign coordinator for a group called Oil & Water Don’t Mix, which organized the protest that featured a large paper mache puppet version of Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The preliminary report indicated that passage of time was not a major risk factor for the aging pipeline, but authors described several “feasible” alternatives, including decommissioning the 4.5-mile underwater segment or building a new trench or tunnel crossing at the same location.

Schuette last week called for development of a “specific and definite timetable” to close the straits pipelines, but environmental activists continue to push for an immediate shutdown. Schuette has the authority to force immediate closure, Holtz argued, all he needs is “the political will” to do so.

Spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Schuette’s plan released last week speaks to “what the attorney general sees as the best solutions for Line 5.” In calling for a new state pipeline authority and shutdown timeline, Schuette highlighted the underground tunnel option as a viable alternative.

Business groups say a shutdown could jeopardize a key conduit for energy delivery in the region, including Michigan, where residents in the Upper Peninsula rely on propane delivered by Line 5.

Enbridge has consistently defended the integrity of its dual straits pipelines, which transport up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids through turbulent waters that connect lakes Huron and Michigan.

“What is important to note is that the alternatives analysis report found that time has had no bearing on the condition of the pipe,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in a statement. “Enbridge’s inspection, monitoring and modernization efforts continue to help Line 5 in the Straits operate safely and reliably. The report concluded Line 5 could safely operate well into the foreseeable future.”

About 150 people attended Thursday’s informational meeting at the high school, where many auditorium seats remained unfilled. It was the first of four sessions planned during a 30-day public comment period. Additional “feedback sessions” are scheduled for July 24 and 25 in Holt, Traverse City and St. Ignace.

Dynamic Risk officials walked attendees through their draft report, providing mostly technical explanations of their analysis during a lengthy presentation.

“The work does not include recommendations by us, but instead it can be used by the state and other interested parties in making decisions about the future of the straits pipeline,” said Pat Vieth, a senior vice president at Dynamic Risk.

His firm was chosen by the state for the independent analysis, he said, because it has provided “technical support to pipeline industry stakeholders for the past 20 years.”

The Dynamic Risk presentation lasted more than two hours before a question-and-answer period, frustrating many in attendance.

“It sucks,” Melvin Duren of Tecumseh said of the glacial pace. “I don’t hear no solution if a spill does happen. That’s my interest. If something did happen, how fast can you cut it out?”

Bill Cobbs, a former Xerox executive and Democratic candidate for governor, said he thought the lengthy presentation was designed to drive people out before they had a chance to ask questions.

“What people came for was to be able to give a comment, and when you overload them with data points they have no ability to understand, all you do is frustrate them and they walk out and leave,” he said.

The report detailed threats that could increase the failure probability of the existing straits section of Line 5 — including mechanical damage, weather and incorrect operations — but concluded the passage of time was not a major factor itself.

The most dominant threat, researchers said, was the risk of “anchor hooking” caused by the inadvertent deployment of anchors by ships traveling through the straits. Water flow around the pipeline and stress due to unsupported span lengths were deemed smaller risks that increased marginally through 2053.

“There is no evidence of any external corrosion walls on either of these two pipelines,” said Jim Mihell, an engineer with Dynamic Risk, citing the results of regular testing performed by Enbridge.

While the report indicated that time did little to increase risks associated with the existing Line 5, researchers concluded that a new trench or tunnel crossing beneath the straits would have lower total economic and environmental risk costs. Other alternative options, such as a new remote pipeline route or rail delivery, were deemed more costly and risky.

A single spill could affect roughly 20 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, according to Dynamic Risk, primarily affecting Cheboygan, Emmet and Mackinac counties. Neighboring counties of Chippewa, Charlevoix and Presque Isle could also be affected, according to modeling by the researchers.

The report “dramatically” underestimates the potential impact of a spill, Holtz said, pointing to modeling by researchers at the University of Michigan suggesting more than 700 miles of shoreline on lakes Huron and Michigan are potentially vulnerable if the pipeline ruptures.

Dynamic Risk was chosen by the state to conduct the assessment, but activists noted the study was funded by Enbridge, which agreed to put money into escrow for use by the state.

The report “represents thoughtful, thorough and expert consideration of key issues around Line 5’s construction and condition, as well as the safety, feasibility and cost of alternative methods to transport energy to the Great Lakes region,” said Duffy. “While there are some conclusions that require further review, overall the report is comprehensive.”