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Great Lakes face threat from another Enbridge line

The 62-year-old segment of Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline underwater, at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, has been generating the most buzz and concern lately over how a spill from it would harm the Great Lakes.

But it’s another segment of that same pipeline, out of the water and running through the Upper Peninsula along U.S.-2 highway for nearly 90 miles between Manistique and St. Ignace, that poses a more immediate — and just as dire — threat to the lakes, according to a U.S. Coast Guard oil spill contingency specialist. The 30-inch-diameter transmission line runs under at least 20 rivers and creeks that feed into northern Lake Michigan, and at points is within a half-mile of the lake.

“Quite frankly, we see a spill in the straits as a very low probability,” said Steven Keck, who’s based at the Coast Guard’s Sault Ste. Marie station. “But that corridor along U.S.-2 we see as a much higher probability.

“We don’t seem to get a lot of attention on that stretch between Manistique and St. Ignace, but it’s still the Great Lakes.”

A joint team of the Coast Guard; other federal, state, and local agencies; Enbridge officials, and representatives of Marine Pollution Control, an oil spill response contractor for Enbridge, conducted a walking line survey of Line 5 where it crosses streams, creeks and rivers along the U.S.-2 corridor earlier this year.

“We conducted the survey in late April because that is when the snow runoff is the greatest and helps us identify worst-case scenarios,” Keck said.

The areas were plotted into a Geographic Information System mapping program, with priorities, objectives, and strategies in the case of a potential oil spill in that area identified, he said.

“It’s very rural. And where you would stage equipment, place a command center and run operations is an additional challenge,” Keck said. “It’s a whole different ballgame in areas where you don’t even have Internet access. That’s a concern for us.”

As with their Straits of Mackinac pipeline, Enbridge officials offered assurances of the safety of Line 5 through the U.P., and their readiness to respond if a spill were to occur.

“We do have plans for all of those rivers … response plans for potential inland spills. We’ve had them since the 1990s,” said Blake Olson, manager of Enbridge’s operations in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.

The company has also practiced exercises on rivers in the area with local officials and first responders in Delta, Schoolcraft and Mackinac counties, Olson said.

Related: A readiness test: What if oil spewed into Great Lakes?

Enbridge’s contingency maps for where pipelines cross a Lake Michigan tributary include information on typical river flow rates — “if there was a spill, how far would it make it in the first hour; in the second hour,” Olson said — access points for boat landings, and strategic places to deploy boom and collect a spill.

Enbridge also has its own radio communications system on its pipeline and can access phone landlines through its radio system, Olson said. The company also has identified locations for incident command centers along the stretch of pipeline, including community centers, schools and government facilities, he said.

Enbridge works with local first-responders on pipeline safety training, Olson said.

“If there was an event, the fire chiefs would be incident commanders to start with,” he said. “The main concern is to keep the public safe — help evacuate and close off roads where needed.”

Allyn Garavaglia is supervisor of Hudson Township in Mackinac County, a very rural community Line 5 runs through — one of many. The township has just over 200 residents. Its volunteer fire department has a dozen members, though many have to travel long distances for work during the day and are unavailable to respond to an emergency, he said. Most in the community are retirees, too old to serve on the fire department, he said.

“The problem’s not getting better; it’s getting worse, because we’re losing population,” Garavaglia said.

If a major spill incident were to occur on Line 5 in Hudson Township, “pretty much what we would do is keep people away,” he said. “We don’t have any equipment for the containment of oil or anything like that. That would be Enbridge’s responsibility.”

Garavaglia said he and fire department staff attend annual pipeline safety meetings Enbridge holds locally “to see if there is anything new to learn.”

“We’re concerned, and we’re trying to do our due diligence,” he said.

Olson said Enbridge has manpower and spill response equipment staged in Escanaba, and three employees in Manistique also are trained in spill response. And Enbridge just hired a team lead in St. Ignace whose “first job” will be to hire an additional four people to serve as a spill response crew, Olson said.

The line has multiple emergency flow restriction devices along its segment between Manistique and St. Ignace.

“The control center has control over those valves,” Olson said. “If they see an issue — a pressure reduction, something abnormal — they shut down the pipeline.”

The line runs under creek and river beds along the route, Olson said.

“There have been a few times where, from natural erosion of the river, we’ve had a pipe that’s been exposed,” he said. The company responds by putting a protective sleeve over the pipe and adding mineral materials to prevent further erosion.

Keck said he hopes to conduct a tabletop exercise with other agencies and Enbridge, looking at spill response readiness in the area, next year.

It all points out that the segment of Line 5 underwater at the Straits of Mackinac isn’t the only threat the pipeline poses to the Great Lakes, said David Holtz, chairman of the nonprofit Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. And while the State of Michigan has clear authority over the pipelines on the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, regulation of the pipelines in the Upper Peninsula running along U.S.-2 lies solely with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, which Holtz said has a long history of coziness with the oil and gas pipeline industry.

“It will take an awful lot of effort to get at the safety of the pipelines in the Upper Peninsula,” he said. “The federal agency hasn’t been a very good watchdog. We have felt, argued and advocated for new laws that put some teeth into what’s supposed to be a watchdog over pipeline safety.”

This article was written by Keith Matheny from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.