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Group accuses feds of faulty pipeline safety plans

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The National Wildlife Federation said Tuesday it intends to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation in an effort to compel the federal government to take a stronger stance on pipeline safety in the Great Lakes.

The group is targeting the federal agency for failing to uphold the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which Congress approved in reaction to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill off the coast of Alaska the year before.

The law calls for oil and pipeline companies to draft safety plans and have them approved by the Department of Transportation. To date, the federal government has still not created criteria for emergency response plans, argues the National Wildlife Federation.

A letter released Tuesday by the National Wildlife Federation to the Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx lays out the group’s concerns.

“DOT has failed to issue regulations requiring an owner or operator of an offshore facility of the coast line to prepare and submit a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge and, to a substantial threat of such a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance,” said Neil Kagan, NWF’s senior counsel.

The failure, the organization argues, means companies are not required to submit response plans at all.

“We hope today’s action will be a catalyst for long-overdue protections that benefit people, communities and wildlife across the United States,” said Mike Shriberg, executive director of the NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “The federal government needs to enforce the law to prevent oil pipeline disasters from fouling our water and threatening our communities and places we love.”

Pipeline safety has been a hot-button issue in Michigan for the past five years, starting with the 2010 rupture of Enbridge Energy’s underground oil pipeline near Marshall. The spill released over 800,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into a creek that carried it to the Kalamazoo River. The result was years of clean-up work, dozens of families displaced and millions of dollars in penalties.

Attention has since turned to Enbridge’s pair of pipelines carrying oil under the Straits of Mackinac. Conservation groups have called for the nearly 60-year-old lines to be shut down to protect the Great Lakes.

This month, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette indicated he believes the Mackinac lines will eventually be closed, but offered no timetable. A pipeline safety task force made several recommendations, but many environmental groups saw them as weak since they stopped short of a closure.

During a conference call Tuesday, Kagan said he hoped U.S. Department of Transportation officials will respond quickly to the threat of the lawsuit within 60 days.

“We want them to issue requirements and to swiftly ensure that these pipelines are designed to prevent spills and that owners and operators are prepared in the event of a spill... to respond appropriately,” he said.

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