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With Line 5 Oil Spill Response Under Legal Challenge, Testimony Suggests Mackinac Straits Was Closer to Catastrophe Than Many Thought

Hearing reveals April anchor strike, strong storms put Great Lakes in danger.

AUTHOR: David Holtz
Oil & Water Don't Mix

Testimony in Traverse City this week by the nation’s top oil pipeline regulator surrounding April’s Line 5 anchor strike in the Mackinac Straits revealed shocking new details that suggest the Great Lakes may have been much closer to a catastrophic oil pipeline rupture than the public was led to believe by Enbridge and state of Michigan officials.

The revelations come the same week as the National Wildlife Federation, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed suit against the U.S. Coast Guard, challenging the agency’s emergency oil spill response plan for the Great Lakes. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft testified to Congress in November 2017: “I would go on the record to say that the Coast Guard is not Semper Paratus for a major pipeline oil spill in the Great Lakes," referring the agency's Latin motto, "always ready."

Senator Peters Hearing in Traverse City

At the hearing Monday of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee in Traverse City on Line 5 chaired by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Administrator Howard Elliott disclosed that damage from the April 1 anchor strike was the kind that could lead to a pipeline rupture. The anchor strike that seriously gouged Line 5, as described by Elliott, was followed by violent wave action storming through the Straits, a combination that Peters called a “frightening situation.”

It also appears that Enbridge resisted honoring its agreement with the state to shut down Line 5 in the event of high waves in the Straits and, all the while, was understating damage to its pipelines from the anchor strike.

What follows is a detailed chronicle taken from a video of hearing testimony Monday that could be a dress rehearsal for a Line 5 disaster:

  • On April 1, an anchor deployed from a barge in the Straits of Mackinac strikes an electric transmission line, discharging 600 gallons of toxic fluids into the water. The anchor also strikes the twin oil pipelines in the Straits but the audience at Monday’s hearing learns that Enbridge was unaware that it happened until April 3, according to Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration administrator Howard Elliott (video at 30:21).
  • While Enbridge used inspection tools to examine Line 5 internally and concluded the pipeline’s structural integrity was not in jeopardy, it waited to deploy an underwater Remote Operating Vehicle (ROV) to examine pipeline damage externally until April 17, Elliott disclosed during his testimony. “We would like to have seen something more swift,” PHMSA’s top administrator admitted under questioning from Sen. Peters (31:00).
  • Enbridge, in news reports, minimized damage to Line 5 from the anchor strike, saying on April 11—before the ROV had examined the pipes—that it involved “three small dents,” a conclusion that apparently Enbridge was drawn to based on its internal pipeline inspections. On April 27—after the ROV external inspection of the damage —state officials were also downplaying the damage, referring to the anchor strike as causing “marring” of the pipelines.
  • However, PHMSA administrator Elliott’s testimony this week revealed that damage to the pipelines was far more serious than either Enbridge or state officials have previously disclosed. Elliott said the pipelines were “gouged” (53:17) by the anchor strike—the most serious of three levels of potential damage from an anchor strike, according to Elliott’s lengthy explanation at Monday’s hearing. “Where we get concerned about gouging is there is more likelihood of a crack that’s allowed to propagate,” Elliott testified (54:24) A crack in Line 6B near Marshall was what led to that pipeline’s rupture, discharging 1.2 million gallons of oil in the Kalamazoo River and its watershed. Enbridge, which claims the pipeline was never in danger of rupturing, has installed a sleeve around the gouged area.
  • Just days before the ROV put eyes on Line 5 for the first time since it was gouged by the April 1 anchor strike, a major storm moved through the Straits on April 15, creating what Sen. Peters described Monday as a “frightening situation (46:23).” While Line 5 pipeline damage was understood to be serious but its scope still not fully known to Enbridge, PHMSA the Coast Guard, the National Weather Service reported average wave peaks of six feet (44:45) (the mean between the highest and lowest recorded), with waves almost certainly exceeding the eight-foot wave threshold that is supposed to trigger a shutdown of Line 5 under a recent agreement between Enbridge and the state. The storm prompted PHMSA’s top official to contact Enbridge with a request to shut down Line 5 oil flow during the storm (48:29). It isn’t clear what, if any, action state officials took to enforce their agreement with Enbridge. Meanwhile, Enbridge was resisting Elliott’s pleas, the administrator admitted Monday. “It took a discussion to get them to shut down the line until the storm had passed,” said Elliott (48:29).
  • On May 2, Enbridge disclosed that protective pipeline coatings remained missing from Line 5 and was still referring to the anchor damage as dents.
  • PHMSA administrator Elliott said Monday protective coatings on Line 5 were still missing (55:23). Enbridge learned of bare spots in 2017, but failed to report their existence for three years and then knowingly understated their size. Enbridge, he said, has a plan to replace them, but he didn’t know when that might happen.
  • Citing Enbridge’s long history of failures and lack of disclosure of problems with Line 5, Sen. Peters Monday questioned Elliott on whether his agency—responsible for oil pipeline oversight—can effectively regulate Line 5 safety in Michigan. PHMSA, responded Elliott, did not have the resources to independently monitor and inspect Line 5. “We are dependent on Enbridge…to promptly report incidents that occur to their pipeline,” he said. (55:53)

Showing 1 reaction

  • Barbara Stamiris
    commented 2018-08-24 21:39:00 -0400
    Senator Peters used the April anchor strike incident to exemplify the inherent weaknesses in the systems we rely upon to protect Great Lakes waters. An anchor strike had been identified by safety analyses 4 months earlier as the top threat to Line 5, yet no proactive steps had been taken before it occurred. Being lucky is not enough.

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