Deep beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where twin petroleum pipelines cross the lakebed, sunlight has difficulty penetrating. But there’s more illumination at that depth than there is on key information involving the safety of the pipelines, thanks to deplorable tactics of state agencies and the pipeline owner, Enbridge. The recent disclosure of state-company collusion to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should concern all citizens.
The pipelines, part of the Line 5 route, qualify as a matter of significant public interest because they were laid down 64 years ago and have been poorly maintained by Enbridge. An August 30 underwater inspection of the pipelines revealed that the screw-anchors used to shore up the pipeline are themselves causing damage to the pipeline coating and creating bare metal gaps in the cathodic protection. Seven bare areas on the pipeline the size of dinner plates were identified. This is the latest in a long list of disclosures that reveal Enbridge to be cavalier in its stewardship responsibilities – and its most important duty – to prevent a catastrophic oil spill fouling a vast area of the Great Lakes.
Why, then, would state government agencies want to collaborate with Enbridge or the contractors hired with their money in eluding public scrutiny of information related to the pipeline risks? But that’s what they did.
Instead of obtaining copies of documents that citizens could request under FOIA, state officials accessed a website controlled by a private contractor, Det Norske Veritas, where they could view but not download the information. This was not pedestrian material. It included “figures depicting hypothetical migration of oil in the environment” from a spill. Michigan citizens, not just state officials, have every right to view that information.
This is not the first time the state has participated in a scheme to keep information about Line 5 from the public. In 2014, when Enbridge originally provided information to the state as part of the Line 5 review, the company set up a password protected portal for the state to review information but not to download. The logic was similar to that of the most recent subterfuge: that because the information was not downloaded, it was not in the possession of the state, and therefore not subject to FOIA. It took the state two years to release Enbridge’s information, in April 2016.
The state ultimately fired Det Norske Veritas for undisclosed conflicts of interest. But the firm’s effort to circumvent FOIA – and the state’s willing cooperation – were equally egregious. Access to information is one of the core tenets of government accountability.
Statutes like FOIA are nicknamed “sunshine laws.” They were written for a reason, to assure protection of the public’s right to know about matters like a potential oil spill affecting public waters. It’s time for the state to clearly and unhesitatingly affirm its commitment to letting the sun shine on everything pertaining to a grave threat to the Great Lakes.