Environmental groups sue U.S. Coast Guard over Great Lakes oil spill response plans

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Coast Guard for its inability to respond adequately to a Great Lakes oil spill though the agency signed a contingency plan indicating otherwise.

Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Coast Guard for its admitted inability to respond adequately to a Great Lakes oil spill and, by extension, the lawsuit seeks to invalidate the response plans for facilities such as Enbridge, which operates Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac. 

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Detroit federal district court stems from comments former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft made during a November congressional committee hearing, when he told lawmakers the agency is not prepared for a major pipeline oil spill in the Great Lakes.

His comments, the lawsuit said, belie and invalidate the Coast Guard-approved Northern Michigan Area Contingency Plan and violate the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, according to a statement from the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The current plan leaves the Coast Guard unprepared to address a worst-case spill from Enbridge's Line 5, which could affect more than 400 miles of shoreline and 60,000 acres of wildlife habitat, said Oday Salim, a staff attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. 

“Until we decommission this aging, risky pipeline, we need the best-possible spill response plan to protect our Great Lakes, our communities, our wildlife and our economy,” Salim said in a statement. 

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was created after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and requires oil spill contingency plans in areas where oil is transported through waterways, said Margrethe Kearney, senior attorney for Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. 

The U.S. Coast Guard signed off on the North Michigan Area Contingency Plan in June 2017, certifying the agency could respond to a worst-case discharge. In November, however, Zukunft told Congress the Coast Guard is "not semper paratus for a major pipeline oil spill in the Great Lakes,” referring the agency's Latin motto, "always ready." 

"It was unlawful for them to approve it when in fact they’re not able to remove the discharge from a worst case oil spill," Kearney said. 

The lawsuit asks the judge to declare the approval of the Northern Michigan contingency plan a violation of the Oil Pollution Act and invalidate sections of the plan that relate to open waters and any facility-specific response plans created in coordination with the plan, including Enbridge's facility response plan. 

"You are not allowed to operate without a facility response plan," Kearney said. "If the court agrees, as they should, that the area contingency plan is not valid then certainly one of the outcomes could be someone requesting that Line 5 be shut down.”

A U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.


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