Well, it’s been exactly 4 years since Enbridge spilled around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed and instead of Enbridge talking about improvements they’ve made to the way they manage and operate their pipeline systems, they are being required to explain why, for the past 61 years, they have chosen to ignore a major pipeline safety condition that is required to protect the Great Lakes from an oil spill.
The State of Michigan’s Attorney General has just released a “notice of violation” to Enbridge Energy for the 61-year-old oil pipelines running through the Straits of Mackinac. This violation has surfaced because earlier this month over a dozen groups sent a letter to the Governors office notifying him of several probable violations in regards to the original easement agreement for these pipelines.
Back in 1953, the State of Michigan gave consent to construct two massive oil pipelines through the Great Lakes by issuing a right-of-way easement agreement for use of the bottomlands (see map below). This agreement came with several legally binding conditions that needed to be agreed upon before construction and operation of these oil pipelines could begin. It turns out Enbridge has been ignoring one of the biggest safety features required by the state, which clearly outlines that the dangling sections of pipeline must be supported – that condition reads:
“The maximum span or length of pipe unsupported shall not exceed seventy-five (75) feet.”
This condition cannot be more clear and when you review the above topographic map, showing these lines crossing a sunken river, you realize how important this requirement is from a safety aspect. When this pipeline was constructed 61 years ago, they should have been built to the agreed upon safety features outlined in the easement..after all, that is the point of having an easement agreement in the first place. There is absolutely no excuse Enbridge can provide to justify why these safety supports are not in place. However, Enbridge plays by their own rules and here’s what they had to say:
“..a span distance up to 140 feet is safe. The Straits of Mackinac crossing has been incident-free since it was constructed in 1953,”
For four years now, organizations and concerned individuals (including myself) have been pressing for major safety improvements to these pipelines and to discover that Enbridge isn’t even following the most basic requirements issued by the State of Michigan is incredibly alarming. If this blatant violation and disregard for safety does not concern you, please consider this: each section of underwater pipeline is 40 feet long, so every 40 feet Enbridge has weld joints connecting all the sections of pipeline. So for the 140 feet that Enbridge claims is “safe” to be unsupported, there are three welds holding the pipeline sections together. As I’ve written about in the past, failure along welds is one of the leading causes for pipeline leaks. If I were calling the shots, at the very least I would require supports at every weld!
We are talking about the Great Lakes – the freshwater drinking source for 40 million people! Setting aside Enbridge’s excuses and their willingness to violate the law (gambling with the Great Lakes), what’s even more disappointing and disheartening is that the State of Michigan is not willing to have a real backbone here. This “notice of violation” (aka: a stern talking-to) has no real demands behind it.. All the Attorney General is requiring of Enbridge is to go down and add more supports. This action is incredibly weak when you consider that Enbridge already had plans to do this work.
In fact, one has to wonder why the State of Michigan is even talking about this at all? It is sad that I go here, but I’m left wondering if the motivation behind this letter is to help push through the needed bottomland permits or perhaps an election is coming up and folks need some good press? My bigger point: Why is Michigan not using this incredible violation to actually seize an opportunity to demand real safety improvements and perhaps an update to the original easement? This question is not meant to be rhetorical, I would love some lawyers to weigh in on how far the State could have gone with this.
This story actually gets more frustrating. Not only did Enbridge NOT put in place the required safety supports 61 years ago, but they have also gone back down and added up to 10 new supports on two different occasions (once in 2001 and again in 2010). When you add in the additional support work Enbridge has done, how is it possible that they are still in violation and why has the State not been critical of this point until now? Is anyone really looking at what this company is up to? In both cases, Enbridge noted with regulators that they needed the additional supports due to “emergency preventative maintenance repairs” needed immediately. That kind of description should have been a red flag for any agency reviewing a bottomlands permit.
In addition, Enbridge revealed at the last public meeting, in Petoskey, Mich., that most of the original supports are merely sandbags holding the pipeline in place. They indicated that the next phase of work is to “upgrade” some of the original supports with actual anchors that will prevent the pipeline from moving in the swift currents.
So while this letter is a step forward in improving transparency with the public and Enbridge will now be required to at least meet basic legal requirements – I can’t help but wonder why the State of Michigan is conceding to Enbridge by only asking them to comply. Why is Michigan not using this opportunity to demand more, especially in regards to full transparency? What will it take before the State will consider running their own integrity inspection? Because Enbridge is in violation, wouldn’t this be a critical time for the State to go back and require higher standards all around, perhaps require a full environmental assessment?
I will provide updates as answers to these questions roll in – stay tuned.. If you agree with the last point and you want to help protect the Great Lakes from oil spills, please check out Oil and Water Don’t Mix.
UPDATE: Not only did Enbridge do support work in 2001 and 2010, they also did some work in 2006. And a developing story here is the type of permits Enbridge is obtaining for this work. As the photo above suggests, Enbridge is drilling structures into the bottomlands of the Great Lakes, which are held in public trust under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. There are rising questions around how the DEQ is allowing Enbridge to do this work and if they are requiring the proper permits. I will provide additional information, and possibly a new blog, shortly.