WASHINGTON — A pipeline safety bill passed by a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday would make pipelines in the Great Lakes subject to greater scrutiny and encourage oil companies to plan for spills under ice cover such as that seen at near-record levels in the Great Lakes the last two years.
The legislation, which goes to the full Senate for consideration, comes as concerns continue to be raised about Enbridge’s Line 5, twin pipelines, which run beneath the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan. Environmentalists and others worry that a spill there could be difficult to respond to and cause vast damage to the Great Lakes.
The measure passed Wednesday on a voice vote by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which would reauthorize the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) through 2019. But it also included several provisions originally written into a separate pipeline safety bill by U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both D-Mich.
Those provisions included designating the Great Lakes as a high consequence or “unusually sensitive” area under the law, meaning that pipelines operated in and around them would be subject to higher safety standards and specific spill-response plans.
Another provision in the bill requires PHMSA and pipeline operators to look at response plans that take into account the possibility of ice cover. According to Peters’ office, the Coast Guard has acknowledged it lacks the technology and equipment to react to a worst-case discharge under solid ice and that it could be limited in its response in waters that were partially blocked by icy conditions.
“It’s taken five years and nearly $1 billion to clean up the last oil spill from a pipeline break in Michigan, and a similar spill in the Great Lakes would be devastating to our economy, environment and drinking water supply,” said Peters, referring to the 2010 break along another Enbridge pipeline near Marshall in south-central Michigan, which sent hundreds of thousands of crude into the Kalamazoo River.
Enbridge says the 60-year-old pipelines running 4.6 miles beneath the Straits of Mackinac are safe and has run coordinated safety drills to test response times. Recently, Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes reiterated to the Free Press that section of Line 5 “has never had an issue” during its years of operations.