Senators push bills that might close Line 5 pipelines

Melissa Nann Burke, Detroit News Washington Bureau
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Washington — Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow are introducing pipeline-safety legislation that would in part expand the emergency authority of the U.S. transportation secretary to suspend or shut down pipelines under unsafe conditions.

The measures would allow the secretary to close, for example, Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, if the secretary determined that its operator, Enbridge, lacked the financial resources to cover costs associated with clean-up for a potential oil spill or the capability to respond to a potential incident.

“If a company cannot fully manage the cleanup of the spill, then they shouldn’t be operating because, certainly, taxpayers should not be paying for a spill,” said Stabenow, D-Lansing.

Peters acknowledged that cleaning up a spill from pipeline such as Line 5 would be an “extremely expensive undertaking,” and that’s why pipeline operators would have to show that they have the resources to handle it.

“We know that any oil spill in the lakes would be catastrophic, particularly in the Straits of Mackinac where we have very strong currents that move back and forth, east to west, and a tremendous volume of water goes through the straits on a regular basis,” said Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

“The amount of water is said to be equal to 10 times that of Niagara Falls, so you can imagine the havoc an oil spill would create in the Straits of Mackinac and why pipeline safety is so important.”

Oil pipelines such as the pair owned by Enbridge running beneath the Straits of Mackinac have drawn greater scrutiny since the rupture of an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall six years ago. It resulted in the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Enbridge said it's aware of the legislation and is reviewing it.

"At Enbridge, nothing is more important to us than the safety of our pipelines, our communities, and the environment," company spokeswoman Shannon Gustafson said by email. 

"We support those safety priorities by investing heavily in the tools, technologies, and strategies to ensure our energy transportation and distribution systems operate safely, reliably and in an environmentally responsible manner."

The Democratic senators’ bills would also increase the caps for liability for the operators of pipelines crossing the Great Lakes in the case of spills.

The legislation would create a special classification for pipelines crossing the lakes, so they’re held to the more stringent federal standards of offshore pipelines and their operators would be responsible for covering all spill cleanup costs and liable for up to $133.65 million in economic damages.

Currently, pipelines in the lakes are considered “onshore” or inland pipelines and, therefore, operators are subject to a $634 million cap for cleanup costs and economic damages, Peters said.

The measures would also require that the primary federal agencies responsible for oil-spill cleanup — the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency — to review the response plans of pipeline operators that are submitted to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. The agencies have the option to review the plans now, but are not required to do so.

The senators also want the facility response plans submitted to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration by pipeline operators more readily available to the public. PHMSA would have to post them online, rather than individuals having to request them through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Another piece of legislation, which passed the Senate Commerce Committee last week, would create a U.S. Coast Guard Center of Expertise in the Great Lakes focused on studying the impacts of oil spills in freshwater waterways.

“It’s really going to close the gap we have right now in our understanding of how to clean up spills in fresh water,” Peters said.

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