2012-10-25 / Front Page

Straits of Mackinac

Pipeline Upgrade Sparks Warnings
By Paul Gingras

Enbridge Energy’s plans to increase oil flow by 2.1 million gallons a day through its pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac has triggered a warning by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which wants to stop the project. Referencing a serious oil leak at another portion of the line near Marshall two years ago, the NWF, on Thursday, October 18, called for a halt to the project, citing the pipeline’s age, the 142-mile distance to the nearest maintenance facility, and what it considers insufficient federal oversight. Enbridge officials say the portion of pipeline beneath the Straits is safe. The company is relying on its strength, leak-free history, extensive testing, and the low impact of the light petroleum products that flow through it.

The Lakehead pipeline originates in Superior, Wisconsin, runs through the Upper Peninsula, and crosses to the Lower Peninsula just east of the Mackinac Bridge. It splits into two smaller lines beneath the Straits, known as Line 5, which traverse the surface of the lake bottom. To increase flow, the company will beef up its pumps, but not enlarge its pipe.

The NWF is calling for Enbridge to replace the nearly 60-year-old twin line. Line 5 is nearly the same age as its counterpart in the Kalamazoo River, Line 6B, which spilled approximately one million gallons of oil near Marshall in 2010. The spill is considered the largest inland oil spill in United States history and led to health problems in the area, said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes community outreach regional coordinator for NWF. She spoke with The St. Ignace News Monday, October 22.

After the 6B spill, Enbridge launched “a system-wide reboot” of how the company handles its pipelines, said Larry Springer, senior manager of public affairs for Enbridge. Since then, there has been a remarkable increase in inline inspection tools, he said.

“The idea is to identify a problem before it leads to a leak,” he told The St. Ignace News Monday.

“There will be no new pipe,” Mr. Springer added. “The only upgrade of the [Line 5] is to ensure that it is safe at higher pressure. It is in very good shape, and we know that because it is inspected regularly.” Owing to the Straits of Mackinac’s unique location in the freshwater system, he added, “Line 5 is one of the most closely inspected pipelines we have. That’s why we take so many precautions.”

According to Mr. Springer, Enbridge conducted extensive tests this year to reveal potential dangers. The company pushed water at eight-times normal pressure through Line 5, to make sure the system could handle significantly increased flow. Three types of high-tech tools were sent through the pipe, he added. The first looked for dents. The second checked the thickness of the pipe’s walls (which would reveal corrosion), and the third looked for cracks. A computer analyzed the data. If an anomaly had been discovered in Line 5, Enbridge would have known its location and inspected it externally with remotely operated vehicles, Mr. Springer said. He added that external examinations of Line 5 are conducted regularly, regardless of internal test results.

Enbridge conducted internal and external examinations of the lines in 2012 and 2010, he told The St. Ignace News.

The company is preparing equipment for the increased flow at pumping stations along the Lakehead system, Mr. Springer said. The most vigorous work is taking place at its Rapid River pumping station. Preparations are also being made at pumping stations in Naubinway, Gould City, Mackinaw City, and Indian River, he added.

The NWF considers the lack of improvements to the line dangerous, Ms. Wallace said. Line 5 has never leaked at the Straits, she acknowledged, but there is no augmentation of the pipe or increased safety measures to compensate for increased pressure and temperature.

It takes eight minutes to shut down the line once a leak is detected. In that time, in a worst-case scenario (such as the pipe breaking in half), one million gallons of oil can leak, Ms. Wallace contends. A chief concern of the NWF is that the nearest Enbridge pipeline station is three hours away, in Escanaba.

At the Line 6B spill, it took 17 hours to discover the leak and shut down the system, she added.

Although a spill is “highly unlikely” in the Straits, Enbridge has resources in the area, Mr. Springer said. There are employees nearby who can assess the operation mobilize equipment. The company has contractors on call, and the U.S. Coast Guard has resources, he said. Enbridge, the Coast Guard, and local emergency responders have conducted exercises to prepare for spills, he told The St. Ignace News.

The potential danger to Line 5 depends on what Enbridge pumps through the system. Although the company pumps lightweight petroleum products through Line 5, it can change the type of products it sends through at any time, Mrs. Wallace said. The NWF’s main concern is “toxic tar sands oil.” The substance is thick and viscous. Even diluted, it poses a serious threat, she noted.

Enbridge can move heavy materials through the line by diluting them and relabeling the content as a lighter substance. The NWF considers this process of relabeling substances that pass through the line as a way to avoid federal oversight, Ms. Wallace told The St. Ignace News.

Heavy materials can be “upgraded” and moved, but, “in this case,” Mr. Springer said, “it doesn’t matter. There are no plans at all to move any heavy oil through the pipeline. Line 5 does not carry heavy oils or natural gas liquids, and it won’t,” he told The St. Ignace News.

Enbridge is overseen by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Following the 6B line spill, Enbridge was required to create new emergency response plans.

The NWF feels the PHMSA is not doing enough regarding the Line 5 expansion. Increased scrutiny is in order, she said.

Normally, when a pipeline is expanded, it requires a permit by the president of the United States, however, since this is considered “maintenance,” no permit is required, she added. Mr. Springer said the permit is not required because no new pipe is being added to the system.

Information on Line 5 has been difficult to obtain, Ms. Wallace charges. The NWF has sought maintenance records and inspection history from the PHMSA via the Freedom of Information Act. According to Ms. Wallace, no documents have been released to the NWF. The PHMSA has told the NWF that it is 10th on the list of applicants. The NWF has also asked for maintenance and inspection information from Enbridge and received no reply, she added.

The PHMSA audits and inspects Enbridge regularly, Mr. Springer said. Enbridge does not release data because it is extremely complex and would be “meaningless” without experts to interpret it, he added.

Although Line 5 has never leaked at is passage point beneath the Straits, there have been significant problems with the Lakehead system elsewhere, Ms. Wallace said. In addition the Line 6B spill, she cited a cloud of gas that was released near Crystal Falls in 1999 that caught fire and burned for 36 hours. She also noted an oil spill near Lake Michigan, detected by a flyover in 1990. Enbridge recovered six hundred gallons of oil at the site. A small portion reached Lake Michigan, but was not enough to prompt a cleanup, she added.

The reason for the increased flow through Line 5 results from customer demand and increased mining of light oil from the enormous Bakken rock formation beneath North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Winnipeg, Mr. Springer said. Customers want it shipped east to make gasoline, diesel fuel, and other hydrocarbon products, he added.

The NWF report on Line 5 is located at www.nwf.org/regionalcenters. Click on Great Lakes. Information on Enbridge pipeline safety and reports on Line 6B are at www.enbridgeus.com.

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