Alpena News: New legislation focuses on Great Lakes pipeline safety

WASHINGTON — Michigan senators hope their new legislation strengthens protections of the Great Lakes from pipeline oil spills.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters introduced pipeline safety regulation legislation Wednesday.

“With the oil spill experienced in the Kalamazoo River … we know how devastating these spills can be,” Peters said. “Any sort of spill in the Great Lakes would be absolutely catastrophic.”

The bills would increase Great Lakes pipeline liability caps; give greater authority to U.S. Secretary of Transportation to shut down or suspend pipelines not in compliance; create a Coast Guard Expertise Center to study freshwater oil spills; change designation of Great Lakes pipelines from onshore to offshore; require more harmonization between the Environmental Protection Agency, Coast Guard and pipelines with cleanup efforts; more federal reviews of cleanup plans; pipeline transparency of cleanup and safety plans to the public.

“The first bill increases the liability caps for a pipeline break,” Peters said. “Many rules are simply inadequate to protect our unique ecosystem.”

He said pipelines are in two categories, offshore and onshore. Offshore pipelines are in larger bodies of water — mostly in the ocean — onshore pipelines refers to everything else, including Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, Peters said.

“That is significant in terms of liability,” he said.

The new proposals mean companies would be required to cover all oil spill cleanup costs and up to $133.65 million in economic damages. Companies also would be required to prove they are financially capable to cover these costs.

“For them to operate offshore the pipelines have to prove they can afford the costs of cleanup. This would hold Great Lakes pipelines to the same, stringent, offshore standards,” Peters said.

To build on legislation from last year, more emergency authority would be given to the Secretary of Transportation, Peters said.

“If the pipelines are found to be in unsafe condition, violation of operating condition, or their capabilities to transport safely are inadequate, the Secretary can shut down or suspend operation of the pipeline,” he said.

There also would be an amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill to create the U.S. Coast Guard Center of Expertise in the Great Lakes. This new center would focus on fresh water spills.

“It came to my attention the amount of knowledge is limited in freshwater spills in comparison to how cleanup is done for saltwater spills,” he said.

Peters said because the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people it’s imperative to study freshwater spills.

“The center for excellence would allow the Coast Guard to coordinate with universities and other partnerships to better handle spills,” Peters said.

Stabenow said the health and safety of the Great Lakes are issues they’ve been “laser focused on.”

She said last year the Director of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration went up to the Straits of Mackinac to watch a Line 5 safety exercise. Afterward there came a number of recommendations, Stabenow said.

“One of the two things relates to how the pipeline, EPA and Coast Guard better harmonize their safety regulations,” Stabenow said.

She said right now they also are not required to review the cleanup plans. This new legislation would require the Coast Guard to review and give input.

“The second thing relates to transparency,” she said. “We want it so the public has access to information about pipeline safety from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. It’s not automatically online. The public has to go through several steps and hoops to get that information.”

She said the public has right to know and ask questions.

Stabenow and Peters hope the increased bipartisan support to Great Lakes issues carries through to these bills.

“There is a growing recognition by members of Congress that the Great Lakes are an economic driver for Michigan and the entire U.S. Protecting the fresh water is critically important,” Peters said.

Stabenow also was confident.

“I would fully expect bipartisan support especially from Great Lakes members (of Congress),” she said. “We have a Great Lakes Task Force, which is a bipartisan effort. I would expect them to be supportive of this effort.”

Stabenow said it’s only fair for taxpayers that costs of spills are fully covered by pipelines.

Both Peters and Stabenow said Enbridge was made aware of the legislation.

By:  Jordan Spence
Source: Alpena News