Rehearsal for a Line 5 Failure?
Line 5 is threatening the Straits of Mackinac
By Patrick Sullivan | May 19, 2018
When an anchor strike punctured an underwater pipe in the Straits of Mackinac on April 1, releasing an estimated 600 gallons of a petroleum-based fluid into the Great Lakes from an electrical transmission line, the response was hampered by extreme weather.
Opponents of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 oil pipeline fear the incident shows that responders aren’t ready for a catastrophe; meanwhile, Enbridge and U.S. Coast Guard officials say the reaction proved they are prepared to staunch an incident before it becomes dangerous.
Whichever side is right could one day be critical to Michigan’s economy; a Michigan State University professor just released a study that concluded a Line 5 oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac could cost the state more than $6 billion.
A STRAITS OF MACKINAC OIL SPILL
A tugboat — the Clyde S. VanEnkevort — allegedly caused the April 1 failure of the American Transmission Company line. It had dragged an anchor that punctured underwater pipes carrying power cables, prompting a leak of the fluid used to insulate those cables into the Straits. The fluid has been variously described as anything from the seemingly harmless “mineral oil” to the more toxic-sounding “dielectric fluid.” Either way, everyone hopes that by now the substance has dissipated into the lake and vanished as a threat to human and animal health.
The leak was discovered April 1 and reported to the Coast Guard the following day, a lag that concerns Line 5 opponents. In the days that followed, severe winter weather that persisted through early April made it difficult for responders to assess and address the spill.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the same vessel’s anchor apparently struck and damaged one of the two Line 5 pipelines, too. Each of those lines carries as much as 11 million gallons of oil across the Straits per day.
The anchor strikes occurred just weeks before Traverse City-based For Love of Water released the results of a study it had commissioned to estimate the impact a Line 5 failure would have on the state’s economy. Michigan State University ecological economist Dr. Robert Richardson conducted the study.
FLOW’s executive director, Liz Kirkwood, said she was grateful to be talking about the hypothetical impact of a Line 5 failure rather than an actual catastrophe.
“That an anchor potentially struck and hit Line 5 and didn’t cause a rupture, I think, is miraculous,” Kirkwood said.
Kirkwood said that when FLOW commissioned Richardson’s report last year, they started out considering an anchor strike to be among the threats to Line 5’s integrity. At the time, that seemed odd to some observers, Kirkwood said, because conventional wisdom had it that a combination of corrosion and human error were the biggest threats to the pipeline.
“I remember people’s reaction, which was, ‘Well, that’s odd. I mean, why aren’t they talking about corrosion?’” she said.
That the ATC pipeline was struck and leaked into the Straits should serve as a warning shot, she said.
“I think it drives home the reality of what a catastrophic spill could look like,” she said. “It’s the precursor of what would happen.”
WHAT WE LEARNED
What the ATC spill taught us, Kirkwood said, is that responding to an environmental emergency in the Straits of Mackinac can offer unexpected challenges.
It took a day for the ATC rupture to be reported and by then, due to weather and the passage of time, there was apparently little that could be done to clean up the spill.
“I think we learned that, number one, the reporting time can be very significantly delayed,” Kirkwood said. “In this particular case, it took ATC almost 24 hours to report.”
Another ominous lesson learned from ATC, Kirkwood said, is that in the event a Line 5 failure were to occur during extreme weather conditions, response to the spill could be crippled.
After the ATC spill, days went by before a boat could be launched to survey the area, she said. “There were no boats that were able to go out to assess and contain this spill, and so you had 600 gallons that ended up just diluting into the Great Lakes, and that’s sort of the best that we can hope for,” Kirkwood said.
Kirkwood said she heard ATC executives describe the early April weather following the spill as “extraordinary,” and she said she found that disturbing because extreme weather events around the Straits of Mackinac are not extraordinary — they are commonplace throughout the year. For example, the Mackinac Bridge is routinely closed to traffic during periods of high winds.
Kirkwood recalls hearing an anecdote from a Line 5 researcher who said that while he was working in the field, his team split up on each side of the bridge.
“He said, ‘We couldn’t even cross the bridge to communicate with the other part of our team,’” Kirkwood said. “High wind conditions could prevent responders from crossing the bridge.”
The FLOW/MSU study did not take into account how severe weather and ice cover could hamper the response. Kirkwood said the cost of a Line 5 failure amid harsh winter conditions could be far worse than what the study imagined.
“Everything that you think is going to be easy could be the opposite and could be very, very difficult,” Kirkwood said. “Presumably, the price tag would go up, because the longer that you have oil in the open waters without it being contained, the more likely it is to actually come to shore. When you look at the cost of an oil spill, once you hit land, the cost goes up very significantly.”
RESPONSE FROM ENBRIDGE
The FLOW/MSU study estimates that a Line 5 failure might release 2.5 million gallons of oil into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in a better-than-worse-case-scenario. The cost of cleanup and the economic effects of the loss of tourism, damage to drinking water infrastructure and fisheries, and reduction in property values could cost Michigan billions.
“If a rupture were to occur, it is possible that automatic response valves would be triggered, and a release of oil could be of a lesser magnitude,” Robertson wrote in the report. “However, it is also possible that a failure of those valves and an extended delay in response, such as those experienced in pipeline ruptures, could lead to a release of oil of a far greater magnitude than this scenario, with economic damages well in excess of the estimates in this report.”
Ryan Duffy, a Lansing-based Enbridge spokesman, said the FLOW study is “fundamentally flawed.”
“It is based on an unrealistic volume of product potentially released. Enbridge has done extensive safety and risk planning on Line 5,” Duffy said in an email. “Our analysis indicates a potential worst-case discharge at the Straits of Mackinac is approximately 5,000 barrels, which is less than one-tenth the volume assumed in this study.”
Moreover, automatic shut-off valves would stop the flow of oil once there is a drop in pressure in the line caused by a leak, he said. There are automatic shut-off valves located on both sides of the pipelines that are capable of shutting off the line within minutes.
“We would immediately activate containment and clean-up equipment and crews,” Duffy said.
Duffy said Enbridge is working with the state of Michigan to find ways to mitigate the risks posed by anchor strikes, including using a tunnel underneath the Straits to move the line away from where it can be hit by anchors.
The tunnel plan, worked out between Enbridge and Gov. Rick Snyder, is considered a betrayal by many Line 5 opponents, who want the pipes removed from the Straits entirely.
Asked what he thinks the response to the ATC spill demonstrated about how prepared Enbridge and the state and federal responders would be in the event of a Line 5 failure, Duffy wrote: “Our focus, 24/7, is on spill prevention. In the unlikely event of an incident we have the training, the people and resources to respond quickly to a release in the Straits of Mackinac. We have equipment positioned near the Straits to enable access, containment, and removal of oil. We have also practiced our winter spill response plans in real-life winter conditions in the Straits of Mackinac. That experience will help us in the event of a spill.”
A message left at ATC inquiring about the apparent day-long lag between when the April 1 spill occurred and when it was reported to authorities was not returned.
In a press release, the Coast Guard described the Unified Command’s ATC response as a success: “‘Since the beginning of this response, the Unified Command, together with the many federal, state, local and tribal partners, worked diligently to mitigate any pollution threat to our Straits and precious wildlife, and to be transparent in our efforts,’ said Cmdr. Shaun Edwards, Incident Commander. ‘Although our mission is complete, we all remain committed to learning the cause this incident and doing our best to eliminate any threat of something like this happening again.’”
INJURED BIRD REPORTS
Wildlife photographer Lynn Fraze first learned about Line 5 when she attended a meeting about it at Petoskey High School in 2011, long before “Shut Down Line 5 Pipeline” yard signs proliferated across northern Michigan.
Fraze said she was alarmed when she approached the building and found it secured by police officers. They were apparently there in case there was trouble from people wanting to protest the Enbridge Kalamazoo oil spill, a 2010 event that saw nearly a million gallons of oil flow into the regional river system and cost more than a billion dollars to clean up.
“There was a couple that stood up at the end of the meeting, and they tried to talk about the Kalamazoo spill and they said, ‘If you don’t do something about this pipeline, you’re all going to be really sorry,’” Fraze recalled. “And the police officers came in and escorted them out.”
Today, Fraze said she is disturbed by her perception that authorities are downplaying and minimizing the severity of the ATC spill.
Fraze is a member of Mackinac Straits Raptor watch, which happened to be holding an annual festival in Mackinaw City on the weekend following that spill. The spill also unfolded in front of a beach where an MSRW bird watcher had been stationed to count birds since late March.
The bird watcher, Adam Bradley, wrote on his blog that he learned of the spill when officials began to visit the beach and started asking him pointed questions.
Fraze, who was the photography coordinator for the festival, believes that Bradley saw evidence of wildlife harmed in the spill.
“Adam was saying that there had been 50 red-breasted mergansers there a couple days before that had been out on the ice and came in as a group and did excessive preening for over an hour, just in one area, trying to clean their chest area,” Fraze said. “He said in his 20-some years of observing wildlife, he’s never seen that. And so he reported that to the authorities.”
A couple days after the festival, Fraze found what she considered evidence of the oil spill — a clear ice that was stained yellow, a sight she’d never seen before over decades of visiting the Mackinac Straits.
“It looked to me like Vaseline, a little lighter tint than Vaseline, but it was completely clear,” she said. “I called and tried to report it to the Coast Guard. It took me over an hour. They transferred me around, ‘This is the command number you should call’; ‘No, this is the command number you should call’; ‘Oh no, you should call this number in Washington, D.C.’”
She said she was finally connected to someone who took her report.
Yet, in a May 8 press release, the Coast Guard said: “During the response, the Coast Guard and other agencies continually surveyed the Straits from the water, the air, and from the shoreline. There have been no reports of pollution or injured wildlife.”
Petty officer Brian McCrum of the Coast Guard public affairs office in Cleveland insisted that no one reported injured wildlife to the agency.
It’s possible that Bradley’s report of birds preening excessively and Fraze’s report of discolored ice were deemed inconclusive observations and therefore were not counted as reports of wildlife injury or pollution. Fraze said she remains concerns about what the spill’s long-term impact on wildlife will entail.
LOWER CONSEQUENCES FOR BIRD KILLS
It just so happens that whether or not wildlife was destroyed as a result of the ATF spill is a moot point, at least as far as federal penalties are concerned.
Days after the spill, the Trump administration fulfilled a pledge to gut the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a law that was enacted in concert with other countries amid concern over several bird species that had gone extinct over a century ago.
On April 11, the Interior Department issued an order that the law would no longer be used to punish the killing of birds when birds are killed as a result of any activities that are not undertaken for the purpose of killing birds. For example, unless a company caused an oil spill with the intent to kill birds, they can no longer face penalties under the MBTA for birds that are killed in an oil spill. It was a reversal of years of consensus over what is considered to be one of the county’s first environmental laws.
According to the The Washington Post: “The new interpretation reverses decades of action by Republican and Democratic administrations to protect the animals as they navigate the globe.”
Fraze hopes that this change in policy will not turn out to be relevant for the Straits of Mackinac bird populations. She hopes that Line 5 is decommissioned and shut down before any wildlife is threatened.
“It’s common sense that they have a backup plan (to transport the oil elsewhere). Would a billion-dollar company not have a backup plan to keep the flow of oil moving?” Fraze said. “I don’t want to, as a wildlife photographer, take pictures of animals, birds primarily, covered in oil. I don’t.”
Even if we did learn from the ATC spill that there are trained and competent responders ready to react at the Straits of Mackinac to a Line 5 failure, Kirkwood said, that shouldn’t be acceptable.
“I think all of us are wondering, why are we trying to prepare for Enbridge’s disaster, and why is the public being burdened with this risk that is absolutely avoidable?” she said. “We will never be as prepared as we want to be, given the age, given the track record, given the extraordinary risk.”