Michigan’s increasing role in petroleum products transport doesn’t just pose potential risk; it’s already causing problems.
An oil pipeline operated by Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge burst near Marshall in July 2010, resulting in the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. The spill decimated Talmadge Creek, a tributary to the Kalamazoo River, and about 40 miles of the river. It prompted a more than $1-billion cleanup that, more than four years later, is still not complete.
As Enbridge works to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency orders to clean the river, it also is expanding pipelines across North America, including in Michigan, to ship greater quantities of heavy tar sands oil from Canada to new and expanded markets. That includes Detroit’s Marathon oil refinery, which in 2012 completed a $2.2-billion renovation allowing the refinery to take more of the oil sands product known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.”
“We are in the midst of a very big, fundamental change in the type of fuel we get in this country,” said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As Michigan and Midwest investment in energy extraction and transport increases, rising threats to the environment and communities have become painfully apparent and worrisome, including potential oil spills in the Great Lakes, aging natural gas pipeline on lands, and clouds of harmful petroleum dust polluting the air in some residential communities.
Economic development officials point to the increased investment and jobs from extracting and transporting natural gas and other fossil fuels, but environmentalists say the track record is already spotty and that the health of the Great Lakes and other Michigan environmental jewels is at increased risk and too important to chance. The health of some residents who have breathed in polluted air or who live near fracking operations and drink the water could also be at risk, they contend.
The dilbit proved particularly problematic in the Kalamazoo River spill, as its diluent chemicals evaporated — causing short-term air quality and public health concerns — and the heavy oil then sank to the river bottom, making conventional recovery technology less effective. The EPA last year ordered a new round of river bottom dredging by Enbridge, as the bottom oil persisted and was moving downriver.
The Midwest’s growing relationship with dilbit led to the controversial rising mounds of petroleum coke on the banks of the Detroit River last year. Pet coke is a by-product of dilbit refining and is being sold as a fuel source despite environmentalists’ concerns that it burns dirtier than coal.
Dust off the pet coke piles wound up in nearby residents’ homes, and likely in their lungs. It also swirled in black clouds over the Detroit River, before the city ordered the piles removed. The piles’ host, Detroit Bulk Storage, attempted to store the product at another site downriver near River Rouge, but the state Department of Environmental Quality rejected that request.
It isn’t just new oil transport projects that cause concern, but some very old ones.
Enbridge also operates pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron come together. The 61-year-old pipes, and the potential for a catastrophic oil leak into the Great Lakes, have garnered the attention of many, including state Attorney General Bill Schuette and DEQ Director Dan Wyant, who have convened an examination of the straits pipelines and Michigan’s general pipeline safety.
A University of Michigan study earlier this year examined Great Lakes currents near the Straits and developed models of potential oil spills from the underwater pipelines. The spill scenarios show that depending on current directions, a spill could be transported eastward into Lake Huron, westward into Lake Michigan, and move back and forth through the straits several times.
Shoreline areas most impacted would be Mackinac Island, Bois Blanc Island and the Lake Huron shoreline east of Mackinaw City. Contamination could spread as far west as Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to Rogers City in Lake Huron, the study found.
“I can’t think — in my experience — of another place on the Great Lakes where an oil spill would have as wide an area of impact, in as short of time, as at the Straits of Mackinac,” said David Schwab, a research scientist at the U-M water center.
On land, while Michigan’s two major utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, have stepped up efforts to replace aging natural gas pipelines, the pace remains slow, and the danger is rising.
DTE continues to have 2,419 miles of cast-iron main in its pipeline system — the second-most of any utility in the U.S. — and 285 miles of unprotected, bare steel pipe in its system.
Consumers Energy has 575 miles of cast-iron pipe and 203 miles of unprotected, bare steel line. It’s the kind of outdated pipe considered most at risk of failure by federal regulators. Replacement plans are expected to take 25 years or more.
DTE gas leak surveys showed average hazardous leak counts quadrupled to 1,248 from 2006 to 2010. More than a quarter of the leaks in that average were caused by corrosion, according to data provided by the utility to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, or PHMSA, the regulator of pipelines nationwide.
The problems help make the case for more investment in renewable energy, said Anne Woiwode, director of the nonprofit environmental group Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
“The lack of a long-term strategy for how we get to Michigan-owned clean power is a serious problem we continue to face,” she said.
HOW OLD PIPES CAN BREAK
There are 2.6 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. — 56,000 of them in Michigan. Many miles of this pipe were installed as long ago as the turn of the 20th Century. They haven’t been changed since. Here’s what can go wrong:
Cracks and corrosion
Old iron and untreated steel pipes are susceptible to rusting or cracking after decades in the ground. A crack in an 83-year-old, 12-inch cast-iron gas transmission line was identified as the cause of a Feb. 9, 2011, explosion in Allentown, Pa., that killed five people and damaged nearly 50 buildings.
Poorly created welds, or old welds done before the development of improved techniques, can become a gas pipeline’s most dangerous weak spot. The National Transportation Safety Board found that a “substandard and poorly welded pipe section” failed in a natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2010, that killed eight, injured many others and destroyed more than 50 homes.
Damage while digging
Damage to pipelines from excavation is a leading cause of natural gas leaks. About 87% of the damage to Consumers Energy’s gas system is caused by excavating — and nearly 80% of all damage is caused by professional excavators, the utility says.
Ground heaving caused by freeze-thaw cycles can shift underground pipelines, stress them and lead to cracks or leaks over time.
Copper pipe theft from homes and businesses is an increasing cause of gas leaks and is dangerous when gas still is flowing. “The most serious issues I’ve seen with public safety and explosions have been around theft,” said Bob Richard, DTE Energy’s senior vice president of gas operations.
Sources: PHMSA, NTSB, Consumers Energy, DTE Gas