Group wants to shut Straits of Mackinac oil lines

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

A year after state officials assembled a task force to look at pipeline safety in Michigan, an environmental group is raising questions about the review of oil lines that run in one particularly sensitive area — the Straits of Mackinac — and calling for the lines to be shut down.

On Wednesday, For Love of Water, an environmental group based in Traverse City, criticized the manner in which the task force reviewed those lines.

It also calls on task force members Attorney General Bill Schuette, Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and Gov. Rick Snyder to submit the pipelines to a "public process" under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act.

The group wants "stringent" measures imposed on the operator or the line shut down "pending a comprehensive review" of the situation.

Michigan's Petroleum Pipeline Task Force, assembled last summer by Schuette and Wyant, is expected to issue the findings of its review next month. The panel was created amid concerns about two 60-year-old pipelines owned by Canadian company Enbridge Energy that run under the Straits.

A line rupture or leak in that area could cause major ecological problems in both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and threaten drinking water supplies, according to researchers.

"There is substantial and real risk and threat posed by Enbridge's Line 5 near the Straits of Mackinac to the waters, bottom-lands, ecosystem, and the public trust in these Great Lakes waters and ecosystem," according to the report.

"Based on available information, Enbridge has not submitted future and existing logistical information regarding present and alternative or future plans and alternative routes and alternative risk assessments. As a result, the scope of the task force review has been limited to safety and response activities because of the risk of accident, release or leak. This is unacceptable."

In the review, experts contracted by FLOW concluded:

■The task force has limited its review to a "mitigation of risks" instead of the broader range of what steps might prevent a worst-case scenario from happening.

■Enbridge has failed to provide all the information necessary for a thorough review.

■Factors such as pipeline age, new construction materials and the impacts corrosion and native species on the lines were not adequately considered.

"The state and task force must not continue to delay action because ... eventually every pipeline breaks if not removed or replaced in a timely manner," the report states.

Brad Wurfel, DEQ's spokesman, said a review of information collected by the task force is still underway.

"The group worked to pull together a lot of relevant, real information, and processing that information properly, responsibly, takes time," Wurfel said. "The task force report and recommendations are coming around the end of June."

Those recommendations, he said, will include considerations of: the assessment of "real risk," review of "reasonable alternatives," "consideration of regulatory gaps" and review of the state's emergency response planning.

James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said warnings about pipeline safety in recent years should provide a "wake-up call" to Michigan officials.

"Michigan needs a strong plan to eliminate the tremendous risk to the Great Lakes posed by the pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac," Clift said. "This is a situation where the focus has to be on eliminating risk, because no amount of preparation would be adequate to respond to a failure of this pipeline."

A researcher demonstrated the potential danger of a possible oil spill near the Straits of Mackinac last summer by conducting computer modeling of the flow of oil through the area.

The computer simulation showed oil quickly spreading into both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, contaminating shorelines miles away in a matter of hours.

"If you were to pick the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes, this would be it," said David Schwab, an expert in hydrodynamics at the University of Michigan's Water Center, in June.

"The currents are powerful and change direction frequently. In the event of an oil spill, these factors would lead to a big mess that would be very difficult to contain."

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