2010-09-30 / Front Page

Work Begins on Straits Pipelines

Environmental Groups Ask for Line To Be Flushed First, but Company Says That Would Be Dangerous
By Ellen Paquin

This diagram shows the locations of the 10 proposed anchoring structures in the Straits. (Drawings submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment as part of Enbridge Energy Partners permit application) This diagram shows the locations of the 10 proposed anchoring structures in the Straits. (Drawings submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment as part of Enbridge Energy Partners permit application) Divers will soon be working nearly 300 feet below the surface of the Straits of Mackinac to brace two aging oil and gas pipelines running parallel to each other on the lakebed between Pointe LaBarbe in St. Ignace and McGulpin Point in Mackinaw City. In the meantime, robots equipped with lights and cameras, remotely-controlled from the surface, are carefully crawling along the pipeline to give engineers a close look at its condition. The visual inspection began Saturday, September 18, but was halted for two days last week owing to rough water.

Pipeline owner Enbridge Energy said that to maintain the lines' safety and integrity, it needs to add support structures under them in at least 10 locations where soil has been scoured away by the strong lake currents. Not adding the extra support would put the pipeline at risk, the company advised the state while seeking a permit to drill into the lakebed August 27.

The work on this project will be conducted from barges with a certified diving contractor on hand to oversee the installation. This drawing shows the size of both the diver and the pipeline. The work on this project will be conducted from barges with a certified diving contractor on hand to oversee the installation. This drawing shows the size of both the diver and the pipeline. The company has pinpointed these 10 potentially weak spots, Larry Springer of Enbridge Energy told The St. Ignace News Thursday, September 23, by first sending a computerized tool called a “smart pig” through the 21,000-foot line to check for metal loss, corrosion, or dents. A “geometry pig” also was pushed through the pipeline to measure if it is retaining its round shape. With several points identified where the lake floor has been scoured away, the extra braces are needed to support the pipelines. The visual inspection taking place now will reveal if even more braces are needed.

Enbridge Energy has been approved to construct 10 anchoring braces at locations identified where the soil underneath the pipelines has eroded, with the possibility of constructing additional braces if further investigation determines they are needed. This drawing shows the anchor brace, and how it fits on the pipeline. (Drawing submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment as part of Enbridge Energy Partners permit application) Enbridge Energy has been approved to construct 10 anchoring braces at locations identified where the soil underneath the pipelines has eroded, with the possibility of constructing additional braces if further investigation determines they are needed. This drawing shows the anchor brace, and how it fits on the pipeline. (Drawing submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment as part of Enbridge Energy Partners permit application) Working from barges, divers will install screw-shaped anchoring structures, approximately five feet wide, saddle mount them around the 20-inch pipelines, and auger them directly into the lake floor in selected spots (see map). Once work is underway, additional supports will be installed if they're needed. Depending on weather, the work is anticipated to take as few as 10 days or as many as 30.

“Currents are quite strong and do a lot of scouring on the bottom of the Straits,” Mr. Springer said, “so conditions change.”

With currents swirling constantly, the visual inspection could also show that sediment has built up higher in some areas, he said, and so some locations pinpointed earlier for bracing may not need a brace, after all.

“We're looking for any signs of stress on the line, corrosion, or dents, like you'd get if an anchor dragged across there,” he said of the visual inspection.

The company added braces to the Straits pipelines in a similar project in 2006, he said, and has inspected these pipelines using the “pigs” 16 times since the technology was invented in 1963. The last in-line inspection was in 2008.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) approved the work Friday, September 17, first opening the proposal for public comment. Concerned about the potential for an oil spill in the Great Lakes like the one Enbridge is responsible for in the Kalamazoo River, several environmental groups appealed to the state to hold off on clearing the project, suggesting that before work begins, the line should be flushed free of oil to eliminate any chance of a spill, and urging that all required emergency plans should first be put in place.

The power to make these stipulations, however, does not fall to the state, but to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation. The DNRE's ability to approve or deny the permit was based solely on whether the support structures would adversely affect the lakebed, according to John Arevalo, Cadillac District supervisor of the Water Resources Division of the DNRE, who called Enbridge's request a “routine applicat ion.” Determining that the braces would not have a negative impact, the DNRE announced the project could proceed one day after the public comment period expired.

These pipelines, known as part of Line 5 in the Enbridge fuel line system that sprawls across parts of the United States and Canada, have been lying on the lake floor for more than 50 years, typically coursing with 20.5 million gallons of liquid fuels a day, pumped between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ohio. The line is “batched,” Mr. Springer explained, meaning it carries different kinds of fuels, including natural gas liquids, condensates (lighter liquids used in the refining process), synthetics, “sweet” light crude oil that comes from wells in North Dakota and Montana, and light “sour” crude. Typically, Line 5 does not carry heavy crude oil, he said, but it has that capacity.

As it approaches the Straits, the single pipeline is 30 inches in diameter. It splits into two, 20-inch pipes near where it reaches the water. At this point and several others, devices are installed on the line called “pig launchers” and “pig catchers,” where the automated inspection tools can be inserted and retrieved.

The pipes running under the Straits are 3/4-inch thick.

“Most are a one-quarter-inch line,” Mr. Springer said of the whole 645-mile pipeline system. “Even when these were built [at the Straits], they were extraordinarily heavy pipes, to keep it down where we want it in the water and help it resist outside force damage.”

Unlike the oil well that continued to gush uncontrollably and polluted the Gulf of Mexico this year, this pipeline has a valve at each end – valves that will be turned off in phase two of the project, when the anchors are installed on the lakebed, Mr. Springer said.

What about the environmental groups' suggestion to flush the line of fluids first, carrying out the inspections and work while it's empty? Mr. Springer said this would be unsafe and, in fact, would be the worst approach to take.

“Flushing the line would be a dangerous situation, the opposite of what you want,” he said. “You'd be making it too buoyant, and it would float up off the lake floor. Putting water in the line, another suggestion I've heard, would make it too heavy. To do these measurements, we must examine it under actual use conditions so we can put the anchors at the appropriate points. The pipeline is filled with natural gas liquids, which are propane, butane, and ethane. It gives it the maximum buoyancy that it will have during actual use. You want it to have normal lift during the inspection to see if there are any long spans unsupported by the lakebed.”

Plans are in place in case of emergency, Mr. Springer said, one of the measures the environmental groups called for.

“We have a site safety plan and a safety boat on the site, prepared for any incident and ready to go,” he said. “We have worked many times with the Coast Guard and emergency responders there on both sides of the Straits, as in 2003, when we had an emergency drill of how to handle a leak. I was there in St. Ignace working on that 2003 drill myself. We also periodically conduct table-top exercises with them and we're aggressive in making sure they know how to respond if a problem were to occur.”

Trained staff members of Enbridge Energy live nearby in Mackinaw City, Gould City, Indian River, and Manistique, he pointed out, and line maintenance crews are stationed as close as Bay City and Escanaba.

“This is not the first time we've done this work in the Straits,” he said, speculating that the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River near Marshall have height- ened the concerns of environmental groups about the Straits project.

The spill that polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River with around one million gallons of oil is also part of the Enbridge Lakehead System that includes Line 5 at the Straits, but that leak was on a separate pipeline, Line 6B, slated to resume operations Monday, September 27. That spill, and the company's response, including the reportedly 18 hours it took the company to report the leak after monitoring equipment picked it up, is being investigated by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

No leaks have ever been detected on the Straits-area portion of the Enbridge pipeline, Mr. Springer said.

Certified divers and marine work crews will be subcontracted to perform the necessary Straits work for Enbridge. In addition to those crews, the Army Corps of Engineers will be on site when work takes place just west of the Mackinac Bridge. Coast Guard Station St. Ignace has not been asked to be on the site during the project, said Chief Petty Officer Jon Tracy, but has been fully advised of the operations by the Coast Guard.

Groups Call for Tougher

Oversight in Straits –

And Nationally

In a letter submitted to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment September 14, environmental groups asked the DNRE to be cautious in its approval of the Straits project, requiring the energy company to have contingency and emergency preparedness plans on file. Working together, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and the Sierra Club submitted the letter. The second permitting agency on the project is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It first approved the pipeline installation in 1953.

Grenetta Thomassey, program director for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, said the letter and the motivations behind it are a collaborative effort of everyone concerned about the safety and environmental integrity of the Great Lakes.

“When this permit came across my desk, I knew I wanted to respond to it,” she said. “This is a very special part of the Great Lakes Basin. We need every available precaution in place.”

Holding companies responsible to lessons learned during several high-profile oil spills this year is paramount, Mrs. Thomassey said.

“In following what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, the officials involved repeatedly said one of the lessons they learned was to have emergency resources located closer, not miles and miles away,” she said.

Nick Schroeck, executive director with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, suggested the state agency missed an opportunity to have more oversight on the project. He wanted the DNRE to look at this project from a broader perspective, interpreting its requested approval of the anchor supports as an opportunity to review the whole pipeline structure.

“These support structures are part of a greater whole,” Mr. Schroeck said. “The DNRE said they can only regulate at the point where the holes are drilled into the lakebed for the support structures. We felt that the support structures are inseparable from the pipeline, providing a chance to look at both.”

Oversight of the pipelines, though, falls not to the DNRE but to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which, in light of recent accidents, has acknowledged that efforts must be stepped up to keep the nation's pipelines safe. The safety administration called on Congress this month to draft legislation that would allow it to provide stronger oversight and increase the highest penalties from $1 million to $2.5 million for violations of safety rules by pipeline companies.

So far, the federal government has put the highest safety priority on urban centers and areas crucial for navigation, holding pipelines to the strictest safety requirements only in those “high consequence” areas. Now, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls that practice into question, asking whether those stringent rules should be applied to entire pipelines, including sections in rural areas.

While acknowledging that the pipeline system remains the best way to move large volumes of fuel, Mr. LaHood told Congress, “...as the recent oil pipeline failures near Marshall, Michigan, and Romeoville, Illinois, have shown, as well as the tragic gas pipeline explosion in northern California, the department needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation's pipeline network.”

Pipeline companies are responsible for the safety, operation, and maintenance of their own lines, PHMSA reports. Inspections on the nation's interstate pipeline system are carried out by workers with PHMSA. As of June this year, 88 inspectors were on the job across the country. The new legislation Mr. LaHood has asked for would put 40 more inspectors on the lines over the next four years. Regulations for the pipelines vary, depending on various forms of fuel delivered and whether the line gathers hazardous liquids upstream of transmission lines, and some types of lines still remain unregulated, according to a September 15 PHMSA release. Systems that do not cross state lines are not federally regulated, but are state inspected.

A day before the appeal for stronger legislation, September 14, Mr. LaHood also announced that $5.9 million will be spent by the federal government for 17 research projects to develop new ways to improve pipeline safety. Research will take place in the areas of transporting alternative fuels; detecting, preventing, and characterizing threats and leaks, and pipeline construction quality. These projects were recommended by a diverse merit review panel after evaluating research submissions. The panel was composed of representatives from PHMSA, the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, and the pipeline industry.

- Staff writer Josh Perttunen contributed to this report.

Return to top


Click here for digital edition
2010-09-30 digital edition