State pipeline panel to Snyder: Halt Line 5 for now

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state pipeline safety panel on Monday urged Gov. Rick Snyder to temporarily shut down Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 until sections missing protective coating on the pipeline can be repaired, although a majority of the panel’s members abstained from voting.

The Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board voted 5-1, with seven members abstaining, to back a resolution calling for the action. It came after at least four board members expressed discontent with a recent legal agreement between Snyder and Enbridge requiring new safety measures for the twin pipelines that run under the Straits of Mackinac.

The board’s bylaws allow the motion to carry because a majority approved the resolution, said board Chairwoman Valerie Brader, director of the Michigan Agency for Energy.

The resolution asks the state to “immediately propose an amendment … requiring Enbridge to temporarily shut down Line 5 operations in the Straits until the rest of the Dual Pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac can be inspected and all of the bare steel and coating issues are fully repaired in order to meet the terms and conditions set forth in (law).”

Before the vote, board member Jennifer McKay, an environmentalist, said the Snyder administration “completely bypassed” the 15-member advisory board during closed-door negotiations with the Canadian energy company. McKay called it “disrespectful” to the public and board that Snyder did not include some panel members in the talks.

Snyder created the advisory board in 2015 through an executive order.

The Snyder agreement requires Enbridge to replace a section of Line 5 that runs underneath the St. Clair River, temporarily shut down the pipeline when adverse weather creates waves higher than 8 feet for at least an hour and conduct a study on building a new pipeline in an underground tunnel underneath the straits.

Line 5 carries about 23 million gallons of oil and some liquid natural gas through the Straits of Mackinac each day.

McKay said she’s now concerned that the state is also not being transparent despite Michigan officials criticizing Enbridge for not being transparent enough about coating problems. Some 48 sections of Line 5 are missing protective coating and engineers at the company had known there were problems since at least 2014, although Enbridge didn’t disclose that to state officials until 2017.

Michael Shriberg, another board member and the regional director for the National Wildlife Foundation, said it’s still an “open question” whether the gaps pose a potential threat to the pipeline integrity, although Enbridge maintains they do not.

An Enbridge spokesman said he did not immediately have a comment on the resolutions.

Most board members abstained, including the main representatives from state agencies in Snyder’s administration.

“None of us had time to read these,” said Matthew Schneider, a representative for Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office. Schneider called them “very important” issues but said he hasn’t “had the adequate time to review” the resolutions.

Another resolution asks Snyder to require “a detailed analysis on the public need for Line 5” and “a more robust study of alternative pipeline capacity” by June 25, 2018.

The state is planning to make a final decision in August 2018 about whether to pursue an alternative to Line 5. That could include permanently shutting down the line, Brader said.

State officials also grilled an Enbridge Energy official about Line 5 coating problems but didn’t get many answers about what caused exterior damage along the twin pipelines.

Enbridge is still “assessing the situation” to find out more about what caused 48 spots where enamel coating is missing and bare metal is exposed to Great Lakes water, said Peter Holran, director of U.S. government affairs for the company.

Holran said at least one section was damaged in August after a stray 3-inch metal cable scraped against the pipe when workers were trying to install a new anchor support. Another section of the pipe was damaged during another anchor installation in 2014, according to Enbridge.

The Canadian energy company has been under heavy scrutiny and state officials have expressed declining trust after it disclosed that engineers had known about the 2014 damage but not said anything until this year.

Michigan State Police Captain Chris Kelenske -- who would help oversee an emergency response to an oil spill if one happened -- called it “concerning” that Enbridge doesn’t seem to know what is underneath the straits such as stray metal cables that might have the potential to cause more damage.

“I think we need to know what’s down there,” Kelenske said.

In another development, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is threatening to sue the state of Michigan because the tribe says it wasn’t involved in the recent Snyder-Enbridge safety measure deal.

The band’s Natural Resources Department Director Desmond Berry said the state is not honoring a 19th-century treaty he said should have required the state to include the tribe in Line 5 negotiations between Michigan and Enbridge. Berry said the straits have been a historically crucial fishing area for the tribe.

The governor is supposed to “have an open dialogue with tribes” and “this goes right in the face of that,” he said.

“The only time our voice is heard is because we insert ourselves into the process,” Berry said.