A county judge ruled Wednesday that Enbridge Inc. can reopen its troubled Line 5 pipeline in Michigan, despite technical concerns about possible structural problems with an underwater section of the line and mounting public skepticism about both the pipeline and its operator.
In a hearing Tuesday, Enbridge lawyers told Judge James Jamo that his earlier order to shut down the line “threatened supplies for customers of refineries that receive Line 5’s oil in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec,” The Canadian Press reports. Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office “argued for keeping the 1,038-kilometre-long line shut down until Enbridge provides additional information that would ensure it is being operated in a ‘reasonably prudent’ manner.”
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In his latest ruling, Jamo gave Enbridge permission to open the western section of the line through the Straits of Mackinac, between Lakes Michigan and Huron, to run a safety test. After that, the company can keep the line open, “subject to the results of the (test) and further order of this court.” Within a week of the test, the company must report back with test results for a segment of the western line, after a recent inspection found it had been scraped by a cable from a ship or some similar object. The eastern section through the Straits remains closed until the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration completes its investigation of the damaged anchor support and Enbridge complies with any repair or maintenance requirements from the federal regulator.
Environmental groups praised the ruling as a rejection of Enbridge’s position that the state has no regulatory authority over interstate pipelines, CP says. “Today’s ruling sends a clear message to Enbridge that it is not above state law and cannot continue to ignore the safety and well-being of our Great Lakes, our local businesses, and our communities,” said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes partnerships manager at the National Wildlife Federation.
At least one business organization was pleased to see the line partially reopen. “The pipeline safely delivers the energy products Michigan businesses and families rely on daily to power their homes and job sites, and to make the products we count on every day,” said John Dulmes, executive director of the Michigan Chemistry Council.
But local media noted that the majority of the product that passes through Line 5 travels from Canada to Canada through the U.S., and at least one regional business leader is dead set against the project, based in part on the front-row seat he had for another Enbridge environmental disaster—the 2010 pipeline spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.
“The new revelations that Enbridge has once again decided to forego safety, and continue the operation of Line 5 in the face of unknown forces causing damage to Line 5 has shown, without a doubt, that the culture within this company has not changed in the 10 years since the 2010 spill,” writes Larry Bell, co-chair of the Great Lakes Business Network and founder of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, in a guest post for The Bridge.
“Were Line 5 to rupture below the surface of Lake Michigan, in addition to losing our fresh drinking water and basic way of life, thousands of Northern Michigan businesses could be lost,” Bell states. “In 2017 alone, Michigan had over 200,000 jobs directly supported by tourism, most of which are generated in this exact location. Travelers to Michigan spent US$24.7 billion while visiting our Great Lakes State, generating $2.7 billion in state and local taxes.”
Moreover, “businesses across all sectors, including much of the craft beer community, rely on the clean, safe water from the Great Lakes,” he adds. “A Line 5 failure could decimate that revenue and cut entire communities off from basic needs, including safe drinking water.”
A couple of technical experts, meanwhile, are warning that the damage could point to a larger structural problem beneath the Straits.
The current chapter in the Line 5 saga began when a maintenance screw “discovered one of the screw anchors supporting and stabilizing the east leg had somehow shifted south,” the Traverse City Record-Eagle writes. “The screw anchor, which is on the north side of the Straits in relatively deep water, was bent and twisted in the process. Enbridge said the pipeline itself suffered ‘no metal disturbance,’ only minor coating damage, but information on what caused the damage still has not been released to public view.”
In the initial damage assessment it sent to the state of Michigan, “Enbridge said the force needed to move the screw anchor was relatively small—far smaller than the force needed to critically damage the pipeline,” the local paper adds. “But the company didn’t say anything about what that force could have been. That concerns Ed Timm, a retired professional engineer who has studied stresses on the pipeline for the past five years.”
“The key point here is…if nobody knows why it happened how can anybody be sure it won’t keep happening?” said Timm, who’s had long-standing concerns about the safety of the anchor supports.
“One of Timm’s hypotheses is that either thermal expansion or powerful currents moved the pipe south, and then back into its original position, leaving the bent screw anchor behind,” the Record-Eagle adds. “He’s raised concerns about Line 5 moving in the north-south direction before. But he said it’s among a number of possible causes for the damage, and it doesn’t look like there will be an obvious answer.”
David Schwab, a retired scientist formerly with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agreed with Timm, adding that “the only viable permanent solution to the continuing danger of pipeline damage is decommissioning.”
The Detroit Free Press has joined the call for the line to be shut down.
“Despite Enbridge’s assurances that the odds of damage to the pipeline are slim, Line 5 has, in fact, been damaged at least twice in the last two years,” writes the Free Press editorial board. And “sitting in the straits, a pipeline rupture could cause catastrophic damage to the Great Lakes; modeling shows that 700 miles of coastline are at risk, and that a spill in the straits could carry oil as far as Michigan’s Thumb.”
The Free Press details some of the complexities of a shutdown decision, including a December, 2018 agreement with lame duck governor Rick Snyder that allows Enbridge to keep operating the 67-year-old line for nearly a decade while building an underwater tunnel to protect it. “But this is what it comes down to,” the editors conclude. “Enbridge has shown it isn’t capable of being a good steward of the Great Lakes. That’s just not in its nature. Time to shut it down.”
Michigan Advance picks up on environmentalists’ disappointment that Governor Gretchen Whitmer has not yet joined Nessel’s legal action to get the pipeline shut down. The story surveys the three options open to the state: a court-ordered emergency shutdown, Nessel and Whitmer joining (legal) forces, and complete revocation of the 1953 state easement that allows Line 5 to operate.
“The oil company is likely to argue that it’s not bound by the easement,” the Free Press writes. “That’s a lot like a tenant arguing that he’s not required to comply with the terms of his lease.”