As Rick Snyder fulfills his duty as Michigan’s governor, leading over 50,000 people on the 56th annual Labor Day Bridge Walk over the Mackinac Bridge, let’s hope that he, and his fellow walkers, take time to reflect on the importance of the stewardship of the two great bodies of water they will traverse.
It is doubtful the Canadian-based company Enbridge Energy will invest much thought along those lines. The only lines they’re interested in are the two aging 20 inch wide oil pipelines submerged just to the west of the Mighty Mac, known collectively as “Line 5”. They currently carry 20 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas per day from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower as part of the larger Lakehead pipeline system.
Earlier this summer, Democracy Tree wrote about these pipelines, along with the abysmal environmental record of Enbridge over the years. You can find a laundry list of the company’s negligence and spills in the report Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes.
Today, we take a look at the facts surrounding the potential for disaster posed by Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. It’s a sobering examination that must be taken seriously.
The 2010 Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill, coupled with the BP disaster in the gulf, demonstrate that the oil and gas industry has learned little in terms of proactive safety in the wake of the shocking 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe. Seriously…no progress in a quarter of a century? The drive for short-term profits remains the sole focus, leaving environmental safety as a mere reactionary afterthought, because clean-up costs, fines, and settling lawsuits are a relative bargain in the face of obscene profits.
In fact, they remain so cavalier and disregardant, that after the Kalamazoo spill, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the Enbridge response was positively scathing. They found that the oil company control center dawdled for fully 17 hours before shutting down the spill. The National Wildlife Federation described it this way:
Enbridge officials who were supposed to know how to detect and respond to pipeline spills acted like “Keystone Kops” according to the head of the NTSB panel that investigated the disaster. The NTSB probe found that Enbridge employees twice restarted the flow of oil in the ruptured pipeline, which dramatically increased the volume of thick tar sands oil from western Canada that poured into the Kalamazoo River.
That rupture dumped approximately 1 million gallons into the river, with a clean-up cost at over $800 million, and counting…
If Enbridge similarly took 17 hours to react to a rupture in the Straits pipeline, a full-blown oil slick would spread for 35 miles, mostly to the east of the bridge, depending on currents and conditions.
While Enbridge offers an optimistic “worst case” scenario for a Mackinac pipeline breach to be isolated and stopped in a neck-snappingly-impossible eight minutes (yes, that’s their projection) — even that would dump 1.5 million gallons in the Great Lakes. Using those Enbridge’s calculations, the NWF found that Mackinac City and Mackinac Island would be impacted within three hours. Wilderness State Park by six hours, and Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Rogers City and Beaver Island shortly thereafter — and that’s with their rosy eight minute response prediction.
Compared to oceans, the Great Lakes are a confined system — they lack the ability to filter and disperse an oil spill, small or large. They contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh water supply and 84 percent of North America’s, providing drinking water to 30 million people.
The current capacity of the sixty year-old pipeline is 490,000 barrels a day, and the company is poised to add another 50,000 to that load. Gary Street, a retired DOW chemical engineer and advisor for Freshwater Future, said that a 10 percent bump in volume will exert a 20 percent increase in pressure on the aging system. He recently told the Petoskey News: ”That’s alarming. I’m really concerned about their integrity, and now you’re going to increase pressure on those lines.”
The unique geography of the Straits of Mackinac make it a very dangerous place for a pipeline of any kind, especially a mostly unsupported 60 year-old one that is destined to fail at some point. The question is not one of “if”, but rather “when”. Line 5 traverses a quarter-mile wide ancient river channel canyon that plummets 300 feet below the surface. Concerns about the tension on the aging twin lines is paramount.
Water currents through the four-mile wide Strait could dramatically magnify the results of a spill, making predicting its impact and potential cleanup nearly impossible. The NWF characterizes it such:
Powerful storm-driven currents that cause water to oscillate back and forth between the two lakes can move water through the Straits at a rate of three feet or more a second. At times, the volume of water flowing beneath the Mackinac Bridge is 50 times greater than the average flow of the St. Clair River, one of the largest rivers in the Great Lakes Basin.
Extreme and mercurial weather and geographic conditions in this region, including ice, varied depths and reversing currents would lie beyond the capabilities of the company that is already responsible for dumping almost 6.8 million gallons of oil, through over 800 spills in North America between 1999 and 2010. The NTSB found that among Enbridge’s worst spills, many were discovered and reported by local residents, motorists and utility workers — it seems the much touted Enbridge early detection system either failed or was ignored altogether.
Enbridge’s operations in Canada remain equally sketchy. In the wake of their shoddy safety record, the Canadian National Energy Board ordered the company to file a report on how they plan correct safety violations and come into compliance with NEB regulations. After much foot-dragging, Enbridge finally filed last May, but asked that their plan remain confidential. The Canadian Progressive reports:
“Enbridge is desperately trying to convince Canadians that its pipelines are safe, but doesn’t want any public scrutiny of its safety plans.” said Maryam Adrangi energy campaigner for Council of Canadians. “After the catastrophic pipeline rupture in Kalamazoo, public oversight is more important that ever.”
The Council of Canadians, conducted the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, and learned through documents obtained last month that Enbridge “will delay required crude oil pipeline safety fix for three more years.”
It seems they have a business plan in place, but have little interest in a substantive safety plan — on either side of the border. Enbridge’s track record should be enough to convince even the staunchest skeptic that the company is simply not to be trusted.
Amy Kerr Hardin