New U-of-M study models 840 Line 5 spill scenarios.
MLive: Congress passes bill ratcheting up Mackinac pipeline safety rules
Congress has sent a bill to the president's desk that includes stronger safety measures for Great Lakes pipelines prompted by concerns about the threat of an oil spill from the Enbridge Line 5 gas and oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.
The Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act unanimously cleared the U.S. Senate in March and the House of Representatives on June 9. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law this month.
The legislation, which reauthorizes the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) through 2019, includes provisions that designate the Great Lakes as an "Unusually Sensitive Area" with higher consequences should a spill occur. Pipelines in or near the lakes would be subject to greater safety standards.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, introduced the Senate version of the bill with senators Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Steve Daines, R-Mont.
"The Great Lakes play a central role in our state's economy, environment and way of life," said Peters. "We must ensure that the proper safety and oversight is in place to keep our people safe and our natural resources protected."
The law would require PHMSA and pipeline operators prepare spill response plans that address cleanup in icy conditions. A break in the pipeline when the straits are covered in ice, as is common during the winter, is considered a worst-case scenario the U.S. Coast Guard says it's not fully prepared to handle.
The law would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) consider the risks posed by age, condition, materials and construction of a pipeline in safety reporting. The age of Line 5, built in 1953, is chief among concerns with those who would like to see it removed or replaced.
The law would also give PHMSA new hiring powers to address understaffing and encourages the agency to adopt new mapping technology to prevent accidental pipeline damage during excavations.
Headwinds are gathering for Enbridge in Congress over Line 5. Although the company says the line is safe, inspected more than what is required and could operate "indefinitely" if maintained, legislators like Peters and retiring U.S. Rep Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, have pushed measures that would raise the safety bar and force greater independent review of the line.
"There is zero room for error in the Great Lakes, especially with regard to the aging Line 5 pipeline that runs under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, where there is a strong current and any rupture would be difficult to contain," Miller said.
The PIPES Act passed through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which Miller sits, and the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, prior to chamber approval.
"Certain pipelines should be subject to greater scrutiny and more frequent inspections, and Line 5, which runs cross the Straights of Mackinac, is a perfect example," Upton said.
"If a spill were to occur there, the consequences would be unthinkable."
In May, Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.,sent a letter urging the Department of Transportation hold pipelines under the Great Lakes to the same standards as other U.S. offshore pipelines. Currently, pipelines like Line 5 are regulated as "onshore," which are held to less stringent regulatory standards and an insurance liability cap of $634 million.
Enbridge's own cleanup estimate for a spill from Line 5 reaches $1 billion if the break were to happen under winter ice. Total cleanup of the 2010 Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River cost more than $1.2 billion.
A Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board already wants to use a planned risk assessment study to establish new insurance and surety requirements beyond the $1 million minimum specified in the company's 1953 easement. The state considers that 63-year-old insurance figure outdated.
Tweaking the regulations would require Enbridge to have 24-hour response teams on standby and ensure taxpayers aren't paying for cleanup, says Peters, who sits on the senate committee that oversees PHMSA.
Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the pipeline was "built to protect the Straits" and the company is committed to "continued safe operation of Line 5."
Enbridge "fully intends" to comply with all the new provisions, he said.
By: Garret Ellison
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