Minimizing Risk

Ken Winter

October 3, 2014

Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Minimizing Risk

October 3, 2014

MACKINAC ISLAND–Some 75 braved harsh rains earlier this month to gather at the Island’s Community Center to learn the hard realities should nearby Enbridge’s aging oil and gas Pipeline #5 break in the Great Lakes, especially near the Mackinac Bridge. The troubling simulation and animated videos shown to simulate pollution unfortunately weren’t Sci-Fi.

No one yet seems to have identified the best solution to minimize the potential risk of oil and gas pipelines rupturing in the Great Lakes, waterways, rivers and watersheds, but the options appear imminent. Some argue it would easier if Michigan would exercise its public trust authority, instead of the federal government, to manage the situation. Suggestions discussed range from banning pipelines from crossing a large span of public water to requiring all existing pipes be double wrapped, double piped or replaced if too old and susceptible to corrosion.

Unlike earlier public meetings across the region, absent this time were both hecklers and Straits pipeline owner, Alberta-based Enbridge, Inc. Energy Company that transports crude oil, natural gas and other liquids. The company is the largest natural gas distributor in Canada and one of the major oil pipeline distributors in North America with some 11,000 employees.

Until several years ago, the Enbridge’s Line 5 major oil pipeline remained unnoticed and fell under the radar screen by the public. Known as the Enbridge Lakehead System, it conveys petroleum from western Canada to eastern Canada via the Great Lakes states and passes under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac. As of December 2013, it was capable of carrying 540,000 barrels of oil per day. It carries synthetic crude, natural gas liquids, sweet crude, and light sour crude. Built in 1953, four years before the Mackinac Bridge, the 30-inch pipeline, divides into two separate 20-inch lines through the Straits, and reunites when they reach the southern side of the Straits near Mackinaw City.

The Sept. 4 Mackinac Straits Pipeline Community Discussion, organized by island residents, served as the first of a series of presentations this month by the Traverse City-based non-profit FLOW (For Love of Our Water) headed by founder and president Jim Olson, a prominent Traverse City environmental lawyer, and its executive director, Liz Kirkwood. Presenters also included Bob Wagner, Chief of Michigan’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division Clean-up and recovery in the Straits Region, and Knute Nadelhoffer, Director of the U of M Biological Station near Pellston.

Enbridge owns and operates a similar 60-year-old-plus oil transport pipe (Pipeline 6B) that broke in July 2010 when a pipeline burst and flowed into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall. The six-foot pipeline break resulted in dumping nearly 1 million of oil, making it the largest inland oil spill, and one of the costliest spills, in U.S. history. The pipeline carries diluted bitumen (dilbit), a heavy crude oil from Canada’s Athabasca oil sands to the United States.

At the Mackinac meeting, many were alarmed by Nadelhoffer’s presentation of what happens if oil or any substance spills near one of nation’s most popular and prestigious resort designations—Mackinac Island. With its magnificent Grand Hotel perched overlooking island surrounded pristine blue waters some 15,000 visitors hit the island a daily during peak summer periods. This does not include the thousands of others that live around or visit the popular Up North region.

Unfortunately, the U of M videos shown weren’t Sci-Fi features of aliens dropping big oil globs to kill off residents and visitors, but rather computer simulations and animations of hypothetical contaminant releases in the Straits using neutral tracers (dyes) released at three locations tracers released at three depths: surface, mid-depth, and near bottom. The tracers were released continuously over a 12-hour period at two different times of the year, and then tracked for 20 days as the simulated currents move them. Animations, created by David J. Schwab of the University of Michigan Water Center were prepared for 6 cases corresponding to south, center, and north releases at the two different times of the year.

Nadelhoffer said the simulations and animations were created to help generate a better understanding and preparing for potential impacts of any accidental contaminant release in the Straits. David J. Schwab of the University of Michigan Water Center created the videos with support from the National Wildlife Federation to show the wide extent to which oil or any contaminant spill beneath the Straits of Mackinac could impact Great Lakes ecology, wildlife, and coastal communities.

“Water movement in the Great Lakes is not predicable and complex,” Nadelhoffer opined after showing two of six animations to the Mackinac group. All six videos can be viewed at:

The community-organized discussion revealed several others things should the Marshall history repeat itself in the Straits near the Mackinac Bridge, along the Inland Waterway or between Port Huron and Sarnia:

  • The closest oil disaster responder team is located in the Gulf and would take several days to arrive in northern Michigan or the Great Lakes.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard is unprepared for a spill of heavy oil on the Great Lakes. Though many are working on the fix, the problem is yet to be fixed.
  • Michigan claims it has only after the fact remediation authority for clean up with the federal government has pipeline maintenance authority. Several prominent state environmental lawyers and organization are prepared to challenge that position.

The Straits Pipeline community discussion was the first of a series organized by the Traverse City-based non-profit FLOW (For Love of Our Water) headed by founder and president Jim Olson, a prominent Traverse City environment lawyer, and its executive director Liz Kirkwood. They participated in a panel discussion with Bob Wagner, Chief of Michigan’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division Clean-up and recovery in the Straits Region, and Knute Nadelhoffer, Director of the U of M Biological Station.

Wagner admitted that many had not thought of this kind of disaster for years until the 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River, which served as a wake-up call.

“We learned a lot from the Kalamazoo River,” Wagner told the group. “A major disaster response takes a lot of time. The good news is there is recovery.”

He explained how a new government task force has been created in last June to review the safety of Michigan’s pipelines. DEQ Director Dan Wyant and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette who are co-chairing the group of public and private experts met last month to gather information, review laws and regulations. He said formal oversight for interstate gas and oil pipelines comes from the federal government, but states are not required to do their own management.

Wagner also mentioned a one-day oil spill training exercise on the Indian River south of Mackinac City that was successfully conducted last week (Sept. 17) by Enbridge Energy Partners, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other emergency responders.

Mackinac Island’s Susan Lenfestey, one of the island event organizers, observed:
“We did our best to keep it informational and not confrontational, so I hope you found it to be worthwhile, she wrote in a follow-up email to attendees.

“To see the 1004 ft. freighter, American Spirit, on the rocks right after our meeting served as a reminder that unplanned things can happen in the Straits. Luckily no one was injured and no permanent damage was done.

The obvious question is, what do we do next? Whether we think the pipes should be repaired, replaced or removed, we can all agree that a rupture would be a disaster, and one that would cripple our island and surrounding communities for years to come.

I think that FLOW is on the right track with using existing laws to make sure Enbridge complies with the conditions that were set back in 1953. In a perfect world I’d like to see no oil anywhere near the Great Lakes, but that’s not a reality at this time.”

She said that FLOW has drafted a letter to be sent to the governor from Mackinac Island calling on him to make Enbridge comply with the conditions of the 1953 easement granted them.

During the Mackinac meeting, Olson explained the Common Public Trust Doctrine that has its roots from as far back as the Magna Charta, where the 1215 charter that required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary. He believes this and several other Michigan documents and court cases recognize the state’s jurisdiction over pipelines.

“The basic question is the state correct they don’t have jurisdiction?” he asked.

He suggested that the state can require Enbridge to apply for easement permission to have its pipeline cross public water and that the state cannot give up its jurisdiction or relinquish rights as a public trustee that can require such things as bonds, amortization, risk management, control and regulation of protected uses as does for navigation, boating, fishing, swimming and drinking water.

FLOW, along with other major state environment groups ranging from the Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Land Use Institute, and Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council have formed a coalition called, “Oil & Water Don’t Mix-Keep Oil Out of the Great Lakes”. They have asked Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and the DEQ Director Dan Wyatt in an August 15 letter to take immediate control and oversight of the Straits pipeline under the state’s Perpetural Public Trust Authority.

They and other groups have also requested the state leaders request Enbridge for:

  • Maximum Operating Pressure (600 pounds per square inch) records and evidence that it is being followed.
  • Complete Records of Oil be disclosed under terms of the easement.
  • Records of Maximum Span of Unsupported Pipeline with 75-foot span of pipeline be provided.
  • Maximum Curvature Requirement disclosure that no section of the Line 5 violates the maximum curvature requirement of 2050 foot radius as specified in the 1953 easement
  • Adequacy of Liability Insurance Coverage of $1 million required by the 1953 easement is provided although after $1 billion cost associated with the breach along the Kalamazoo River required more coverage.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

October 2, 2014 · Filed under Winter

(Source:, October 7, 2014)


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