04.12.18

MLive/Grand Rapids Press: U.S. senator questions continued Line 5 operation after damage found

ST. IGNACE, MI -- As the U.S. Coast Guard continues its response to a spill of an estimated 600 gallons of mineral oil containing toxic chemicals in the Straits of Mackinac, one of Michigan's senators expressed his dissatisfaction with the speed of that response.

U.S. Sen Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, voiced his concerns during a committee hearing held Thursday, April 12, on preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. Peters explained that his constituents are demanding answers.

"We need to know," he said. "A lot of people in Michigan are asking questions. Folks are very concerned."

At the center of those concerns is a leak of dielectric fluid from underwater power cables operated by American Transmission Company, first reported on April 3.

The incident was initially presented as having no impact on the Enbridge Energy Line 5 oil and gas pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac. But new information released by the governor's office Wednesday, April 11, suggests an anchor strike damaged the controversial pipeline as well as the electric cables that leaked. Enbridge has confirmed there are three "dents" to the pipelines.

Though still evaluating the scope of the damage, Enbridge officials claim the pipeline integrity remains and, after a brief shutdown, have continued pumping oil through.

In response to a series of questions from Peters on Thursday, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Linda Fagan admitted she did not have many details about the ongoing investigation into the cause of the spill.

Fagan did confirm Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil and gas pipelines are still in operation, despite the damage.

Calling a potential rupture of Line 5 "absolutely catastrophic," Peters asked Fagan whether the Coast Guard is "fully confident" in the decision by the state and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to allow Line 5 to continue operating in the wake of that new damage.

Fagan, deputy commandant for operations, policy, and capabilities, explained the Coast Guard's role in coordinating spill response efforts does not include determining whether Enbridge's pipelines should continue operation.

"The pipeline oversight is in the state's and PHMSA's purview," Fagan said. "Our role in the unified command focuses on the response and the oil spill, spill mitigation -- to ensure that we have appropriate entities and resources brought to bear in this spill and should other spills occur."

When pressed by Peters for more details on the reasoning behind the decision, Fagan said she would need to get back to the senator.

Flow through the Line 5 crossing was stopped on April 3 to accommodate inspections of the pipeline, according to an Enbridge spokesperson. The pipeline was put back in service the following day, after Enbridge determined the "pipelines had not been compromised," according to a company statement released at that time.

A higher-resolution inspection of the pipes was conducted Saturday, April 7, according to Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy. Analysis of that inspection data confirmed on Tuesday, April 10, there were three dents in the twin pipelines, Duffy said.

At that time, he said, the company reported the damage to state and federal authorities. But those dents pose no threat to pipeline integrity, according to Enbridge.

"A review of all leak detection systems and available data indicates the structural integrity of the pipelines has not been compromised," the company said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the governor's office, which called on Enbridge to accelerate its examination of pipeline alternatives after learning of the new damage, explained why the state allowed Line 5 to continue operating.

"We have information from Enbridge that the pipes are slightly dented but there is no indication of any damage that would result in a problem, such as a leak," spokesperson Ari Adler wrote in an email. "The state is working to confirm everything as Enbridge provides it. We have no reason at this time to believe they have not been forthcoming with all the information they have."

During the U.S. Senate committee hearing, Peters also pointed out that no information has yet been provided about the cause of the damage, other than a Coast Guard statement saying "vessel activity" is being investigated as a potential cause.

The Coast Guard has declined to release any information about the ongoing marine casualty investigation, citing policy, including what vessels were known to be operating in the area on April 1.

Though Enbridge was planning to begin work installing new anchor supports along Line 5 in May, Duffy said the company had not yet been out on the water when the incident occurred.

"Enbridge did not have any vessels or resources on the water at the Straits in 2018, including prior to or at the time of incident," he said in a statement. "Our installation of new anchor supports is scheduled to begin in May."

Peters, who also asked for specifics on the status of visual inspections of the Straits of Mackinac crossings, told Fagan he would like all the requested information before the end of the day Thursday.

Peters questioned why he has seen no reports of visual inspections of damage to the underwater pipelines and cables, despite the fact it occurred 11 days ago.

"This has gone on for a number of days," he said. "Not to have visual inspections, to have any kind of understanding of what happened and to be relying on the state and PHMSA without knowing exactly what they have looked at, I think, is irresponsible."

Duffy said Enbridge expects to send down a remote-operated underwater vehicle sometime next week to further inspect the pipelines for damage.

Citing a statistic that the volumes of water moving through the straits are more than 10 times that of Niagara Falls, Peters called the Straits of Mackinac "vitally important."

"It's right next to our No. 1 tourist attraction: Mackinac Island," he said.

In addition, the risk of oil or other toxic substances being released on a large scale is unacceptable, Peters said.

"The economic and environmental impact would be devastating," he said.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also brought up the issue of Line 5 during a Subcommittee on Energy hearing with U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

"There is no excuse for this ship's action and no excuse for not protecting the straits and our Great Lakes," Upton said in a statement. "In the coming days and weeks we'll continue working hand-in-glove with all involved to ensure everything is safe. We are all watching."

Upton said he will push for "long-term solutions," including a potential for a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac -- one of the alternatives the governor's office is pushing Enbridge to evaluate.

The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water and provide drinking water supplies for over 40 million people.

In addition to his questioning of Fagan, Peters also called for an oversight hearing on the issue and said he would set a meeting with Vice Admiral Karl L. Schultz, nominated to take over as Coast Guard commandant on June 1.


By:  Mark Tower
Source: MLive/Grand Rapids Press