MLive: Bill would update Great Lakes oil spill response maps

Federal maps which assess coastal resources in the Great Lakes that could be harmed by an oil spill would be updated for the first time in decades under bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate.

On July 17, U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, and Todd Young, R-Indiana, introduced Senate Bill 1586, which directs the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to update the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps in the Great Lakes.

According to Peters' office, the last time Great Lakes maps were updated was between 1985 and 1994, depending on the location, while some maps of the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast were updated within the last five years and are online in easy viewing formats.

The bill would authorize $7.5 million for the project and require the maps be updated every seven years.

The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee, on which Peters and Young both sit. The bill has no other co-sponsors yet but is scheduled for committee debate on Aug. 2.

Congress enters August recess late on Aug. 11 and returns Sept. 5.

The maps inventory at-risk coastal resources like endangered and threatened species, sensitive shoreline habitats and recreation areas like beaches, parks and boat ramps. According to NOAA documents, shoreline habitats are mapped by geologists aboard Coast Guard helicopters flying at slow speed.

Oil spill responders use the maps to predict the behavior and persistence of oil in different shoreline habitats, and rank relative sensitivity of coastal environments based on the potential harm and ease of cleanup.

"An oil spill in the Great Lakes would have long-term and catastrophic implications for the health of Michigan's ecosystem and economy," said Peters, ranking Democrat on the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard subcommittee. "ESI maps can provide crucial insight into how oil spills or natural disasters can impact our environment."

Sen. Todd Young represents Indiana, which experienced both an oil and chemical spill along its Lake Michigan shoreline in recent years.

In 2014, the BP's Whiting Refinery spilled an estimated 1,600 gallons of oil into the lake when a distillation unit failed. In April, the U.S. Steel plant in Gary spilled nearly 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium after a pipe failure allowed the carcinogenic chemical to enter the Burns Waterway, which connects to Lake Michigan.

"Hoosier families treasure our coastline along Lake Michigan and our close proximity to all the Great Lakes. It is in all of our interests to robustly protect them," said Young. "Updating the ESI maps will allow us to better protect our natural resources and effectively respond in the event of a natural disaster."

The legislation was praised by Great Lakes environmental groups and the network of business which are calling for the shutdown of Enbridge Line 5, a controversial crude oil pipeline that crosses underneath the Straits of Mackinac.

By:  Garret Ellison
Source: MLive