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Calls for impartial study of Mackinac pipelines mount

Chad Livengood, and Jim Lynch

Mackinaw City — Enbridge Energy is ramping up defense of the safety of its aging underwater pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac as public pressure mounts to stop the flow of oil through the Great Lakes.

State officials are moving forward with studies to assess the risk on continued operation of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline as well as finding alternatives to deliver petroleum products.

The Alberta-based petroleum transportation giant is launching a public relations campaign next week in northern Michigan, hosting a series of community barbecues to highlight new emergency response equipment stationed in the straits that would be used to respond to a spill.

Enbridge also is touting the findings of a study commissioned by the federal pipeline safety regulator that concluded there are no signs of external or internal corrosion. “It’s the first independent assessment of the lines under the Straits of Mackinac,” Enbridge engineer Millan Sen told The Detroit News this week.

The study, however, was based solely on data from Enbridge and its contractors. Critics say it underscores a lack of any truly independent inspection of 63-year-old pipelines carrying 540,000 barrels of oil and liquid natural gas daily through the environmentally sensitive waterway connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron.

“ ‘Trust us’ no longer works, especially from the same company responsible for the largest in-land oil spill in U.S. history,” said Lon Johnson, a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman from Kalkaska who has made shutting down Line 5 a central tenet of his campaign for Congress in northern Michigan’s 1st District. “We need an independent verification that this pipeline is 100 percent safe.”

Johnson isn’t alone in his skepticism of research that comes from Enbridge, which was responsible for the record-setting 800,000 barrels of oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 when one of its other Michigan pipelines ruptured.

“As Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify.’ I might say: Trust and have options,” said Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, invoking former President Ronald Reagan’s cautious approach to Soviet nuclear disarmament.

Using this autonomous underwater vehicle Wednesday, June 8, 2016, and a roving underwater vehicle over several days, Enbridge will survey the entire five-mile-long pipeline, which rests on supports along the bottom of Lake Michigan, will have been covered by both sonar and visual means.

Initial concern about the pipelines mounted because of criticism from environmental groups. Now the state of Michigan is preparing to award $3.7 million in contracts to two pipeline industry consultants to study the risks associated with the continued operation or shutdown of Line 5 as well as the alternatives for rerouting infrastructure that supplies energy to Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.

Line 5 lifespan

Although Schuette said nearly a year ago that Line 5’s “days are numbered,” Enbridge continues to operate the twin 5-mile-long straits pipelines under the assumption they have an “indefinite” lifespan.

And the company is stepping up its efforts to educate the public about its pipelines, which operated under the public’s radar for years until Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River spill six years ago.

Enbridge is hosting six “open house” barbecues next week in Manistique, Mackinaw City, Cheboygan, Petoskey, Gaylord and Traverse City to show residents “how Enbridge protects the vital water resources of the Great Lakes while meeting Michigan’s energy needs,” according to a newspaper advertisement.

The company also is emphasizing the safety of Line 5 has been confirmed by a consultant hired by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to analyze internal pipe inspection data dating back to 1998.

Enbridge uses different high-tech devices to monitor metal loss, deformities, cracks and the movement of the pipeline over time. Each individual test can cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to a company official.

In some cases, Enbridge will send divers down to visually inspect a pipeline.

By comparing new evaluations with those of previous years, Enbridge says it has a clear picture of the strength of the pipes and grounds for estimating how long they can continue to operate.

In the case of Line 5, the company maintains the pipelines have seen no deterioration in the last 18 years and could continue to operate for another 50 years.

Internal inspections of Line 5 focus on anomalies — inconsistencies in the steel pipelines’ eight-tenths-of-an-inch density that are either created during the manufacturing process or developed over time through corrosion.

The internal tests conducted every five years since 1998 show dozens of anomalies in the pipelines. But they all fall into the safer of the two categories — manufacturing anomalies, according to Enbridge.

“Manufacturing anomalies don’t become worse with time,” said Sen, an Enbridge engineer who has worked on Line 5 at the straits for five years.

The pipeline expert who analyzed Enbridge data for the federal government told The News there’s no evidence of the manufacturing anomalies growing.

“With no perceivable growth happening, then every metal loss feature that has been identified is quite acceptable,” said Marc Lamontagne, a pipeline assessment consultant based in Toronto.

A total of 39 “crack-like” anomalies were noted, with none considered sizable enough to merit concern and could simply be scratches in the metal that occurred during pipeline construction, Lamontagne said.

Prior to a June 10 external inspection of the pipelines, an Enbridge executive told reporters Line 5 “can go on operating indefinitely” as long as the company continues its monitoring and inspections.

“The lifespan of any engineering infrastructure is really indefinite as long as it’s maintained in a way that keeps it at the level we want it to be,” said Walter Kresic, vice president of pipeline integrity for Enbridge.

Evaluation and risks

Beth Wallace, a pipeline consultant for the National Wildlife Federation, said relying on Enbridge for the data everyone uses to evaluate pipeline safety is a “huge problem.”

“It’s pretty much the fox guarding the hen house scenario,” Wallace said. “You are left to simply trust what they are telling you.”

Last July, Schuette and then-state environmental director Dan Wyant completed a task force review of the straits pipelines.

State officials are moving forward with new studies assessing the risk of continued operation of Line 5 under the straits as well as alternative ways to deliver the petroleum products, including transporting it by truck, rail or Great Lakes tanker boats.

The state also wants to know the feasibility of building a tunnel beneath the lake bed and what would happen to the state’s propane supply if Enbridge were to build a new pipeline through Wisconsin or Canada, said Valerie Brader, executive director of the Michigan Agency for Energy.

State officials are trying to get Enbridge to pay for the $3.7 million cost for pipeline industry consultants DNV and Dynamic Risk to conduct the studies. If Enbridge agrees to foot the bill, the money will be placed in an escrow account and the Attorney General’s Office would control the contract, said Brader, co-chair the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

The Schuette-Wyant task force recommended the state pursue the additional studies last July. The attorney general echoed the sentiment of Line 5 critics that the state’s lengthy pipeline review is dragging.

“From my standpoint, we’ve got to speed it up,” Schuette told The News.

The state’s continued study of the pipelines comes as a growing coalition of local government, business leaders and Native American tribes is pushing for immediate closure of Line 5 at the straits.

“This is gaining momentum,” said Chris Shepler, owner of Shepler’s Mackinac Island ferry service who backs closing the pipelines and is on the state’s pipeline safety panel.

A majority of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized Native American tribes have passed resolutions opposing Line 5.

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said the possibility of Line 5 leaking oil into the lakes threatens the sovereign rights of tribal members to maintain their way of life fishing the lakes.

The governing boards of 50 counties, cities, villages and townships across Michigan also have passed resolutions calling for the Straits of Mackinac pipelines to be shut down. The municipalities vary from the liberal enclave of Ann Arbor to the Republican-dominated counties of Alpena, Antrim, Cheboygan and Emmet.

“This is not some far-lefty tree-hugging exercise going on up here,” Johnson said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com