Tag: Rick Kane

PFAS: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis that Needs Answers and Action


This is the second installment in a series of essays by FLOW board member Rick Kane on the vital issues of risk management and the responsibilities of public officials under the public trust doctrine. Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America. He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.


PFAS – Public Trust and Risk Management

The discovery of groundwater, surface water, and drinking water contamination by fluorochemicals has triggered a global search for polluted areas, toxicology studies, contaminant sources, responsible party identification, and government actions to establish regulations. PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the primary fluorochemicals of concern; however, they are only two members of a very large class known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under investigation. PFAS are used as raw materials and in final products such as firefighting foams, industrial cleaning and treating products, and fabric and paper with water or grease repellents, and also to fabricate membranes for medical and water treatment applications.

PFOA production started in 1947, and during the 1960s to 1990s, internal DuPont studies showed their presence in workers’ blood and drinking water, but DuPont did not disclose the findings of their studies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2000, the company 3M, after negotiations with the EPA, announced a phaseout of PFOS. In 2005, the EPA designated PFOA as a “likely carcinogen,” and DuPont paid a settlement for withholding information. In 2012, an independent science panel reported linkages to health problems, followed in 2015 by hundreds of scientists signing an international “call to action.” Faced with an emerging PFAS contamination crisis of its groundwater, surface, and drinking water, Michigan in 2017 set a high priority to identify areas of contamination and supply safe drinking water and became one of the leaders in addressing the issue, with other states now starting programs. In Europe, through the European Union REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), specific controls and implementation dates have been established for immediate action and deadlines set for 2020. C&EN Per-Fluorinated Chemicals Taint Drinking Water,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan,  Understanding REACH,  EU Restriction of PFOA, Related Substances

PFOS and PFOA, once widely used, are no longer manufactured in the United States. PFAS have an extremely low level of biodegradability, are environmentally persistent, and, as a result, are known as the “forever chemicals.” Scientists are still learning about the health effects, but current studies have shown that certain PFAS may:

  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
  • Increase the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women;
  • Increase the chance of thyroid disease;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Change immune response; and
  • Increase the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers.

States of emergency have been declared in several communities where high levels have been detected in drinking water. U.S. lawmakers are urging the EPA to regulate these chemicals as a class. Presently, there are more than 4,700 PFAS registered by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society, and the health and environmental impacts are known for only a very few. C&EN U.S. Senators Seek Regulation PFASs

Michigan adopted 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as a legally enforceable cleanup level for PFOS or PFOA. However, a federal report, once suppressed by the U.S. military and EPA, proposes a safe daily level of consumption for the two PFAS at one-tenth the current EPA level. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) translated these dose levels to drinking water maximums of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. C&EN Michigan Declares State of Emergency C&EN U.S. Report Proposes Lower Safe Limit

The PFAS crisis is an ongoing example of a failure to apply comprehensive risk assessment and management practices and to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine as outlined in the first installment of this risk management series. A crisis developed because commercialization did not wait for the science; human health, drinking water supplies, and environmental protection were compromised. Industry continues to promote the use of the “best available science” in restricting and regulating PFAS. However, the knowledge base on alternatives, toxicology, environmental transport and fate, mitigation, and remediation continues to lag the commercial introduction and use of PFAS. There is a lack of precaution and use of public trust principles to protect public waters.  

PFAS Risk

Risk was introduced in the previous installment as a function of probability and consequence. Probability can be further represented as a function of threat and vulnerability. 

Risk = Probability x Consequence

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

PFAS Threats

Lack of Regulations – PFAS are not yet classified as hazardous materials under air, water, waste, or safe drinking water regulations. PFAS are present and causing problems in all of these media due to a lack of appropriate chemical management and regulatory controls.

Inadequate Toxicology and Ecosystem Threat Information – New PFAS are being identified in the environment and “allowable limits” are under study and debate. “Allowable” drinking water concentrations are extremely low, parts per trillion compared to other hazardous chemicals such as PCBs and chlorinated solvents in parts, which are measured in parts per million and billion; PFAS limits are orders of magnitude lower. This is a crisis requiring a priority and new approaches to mitigate water contaminants at extremely low concentrations that move easily through the environment. 

Unidentified Contaminated Sites and Water Bodies – Hot zones are still being discovered. PFAS are found at military airbases, firefighting training facilities, and sites where the compounds were used to fight fires, were and are being manufactured and used to make products, and were disposed of or landfilled.

Lack of Control over Existing Stocks, Inventories – There are unknown quantities of PFAS at fire departments, cleaning and treating businesses, waste disposal operations, and product manufacturers. How are the PFAS being stored, used, disposed of, and replaced? One drum released to surface or groundwater can contaminate an enormous volume of drinking water.

Continued Manufacture and Use – New PFAS materials are being manufactured and used with a lack of information on health and environmental impacts and regulations. There are thousands of PFAS compounds, derivatives, and degradation products with health and safety information known only for a few.

Use of “Best Available Science” for Regulation – New regulation is needed for industry when “best available” is inadequate and a lack of “precaution” has expanded the number of crisis sites and new chemicals introduced to the environment.  For example, the commercialization of “GenX” fluoro-surfactant (hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid HFPO-DA parent acid) as a partial substitute for PFOS and PFOA was believed to be a safe alternative, but was later discovered also to be toxic.  Discharges from the Chemours (formerly DuPont) GenX manufacturing plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina, have contaminated the Cape Fear River and groundwater in the region. Air emissions from the plant have even contaminated rainwater, which, in turn, contaminated groundwater that is not hydraulically connected to the river or groundwater near the plant!  Chemours to Pay Fine GenXEPA Releases Draft Safe Daily GenX Dose,  The Fluoro Council

Vulnerability to PFAS

Children are the Most Vulnerable to the effects of PFAS – Exposure is not only from drinking water, but also from swimming in contaminated areas and eating contaminated food. 

PFAS Move Easily in Surface and Groundwater – Water analysis takes time and must be done by certified laboratories using expensive equipment (EPA Method 537 Rev 1.1 – Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS).  This inhibits quick identification and delineation of hot zones. It is estimated that there are thousands of potentially contaminated sites in Michigan alone.  Record Eagle PFAS Plume Confirmed Near School

Human Health Impacts Occur from Long-Term Exposure – Symptoms and warning signs are not immediately evident.

Effectiveness of In-Home Removal Systems – Certain in-home drinking water treatment systems can be used for PFAS, but they are not efficient compared to the removal of other contaminant chemicals. The operating life of activated granular charcoal filters, for example, is shorter because of the low concentration levels (parts per trillion) that must be achieved. In addition, effectiveness has only been tested for a limited number of PFAS. Proper disposal of used filters is an issue to prevent PFAS from reentering the environment.

PFAS Consequences

PFASs are continuing to be introduced into the ecosystem – And PFAS move rapidly through surface and groundwater. Extremely low concentrations have toxic impacts. Millions of people are at risk and others remain in the dark as testing and delineation goes on.   

Food Contamination and Consumption Restrictions – Restrictions, especially for eating fish, have been issued at some locations.  Health impacts from consumption are speculated, but largely unknown. PFAS bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.

Water Recreational Use Limitations – Recreational restrictions are being imposed in some areas to avoid direct contact with PFAS foams during swimming and general water recreational activities. 

Recommendations – Close the Gaps and Take Stronger Action

Excellent listings of recommendations for establishing regulations and identifying and mitigating the current crisis in Michigan can be found on the websites of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  Michigan Environmental Council PFAS Recommendations,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan 

Important and additional actions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Government officials must recommit to their primary duty to protect human health and safety, protect the environment, and meet their public trust duties. Accountability for the PFAS crisis is resulting in huge liabilities for both government and private sector entities.  Government officials cannot allow continued risk and consequences to the public as the battle ramps up regarding who is responsible and who pays.  
  2. Reclassifying the compounds to a higher regulatory risk level will enable stronger action to be taken to protect drinking water, discharges to the environment, remediation activities, and control of manufacturing, use, and storage. Lawmakers have proposed legislation, but actions are slow and PFAS continue to be discharged and spread through the environment.
  3. New regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and/or state authority should use a precautionary approach to PFAS manufacturing, use, new chemical approvals and disposal. Use of “best available science” and “predicting toxicity” is not adequately addressing all of the risk elements. Health and the environment continue to be put in jeopardy. The use of best available science only works when the body of knowledge is adequate to determine the full risk to human health and the ecosystem.  The current state of knowledge is still far short in understanding risk.
  4. Establish a lower drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) draft study indicates 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA, compared to the federal limit of 70 ppt.
  5. Ensure an adequate number of water testing laboratories are in place with appropriate sample turnaround times.
  6. Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member

    Proactively, identify all users and stocks of PFAS and issue interim guidelines on proper handling and disposal. Already, abandoned drums of PFAS have been found in remote locations. Past experience with other hazardous chemicals indicates that illegal disposal and further contamination will occur. Best practices and approved disposal operations must be initiated as soon as possible. 

  7. Standards and regulations must be set for PFAS users and disposal operations, possibly starting with “maximum achievable control technology,” until risks have been identified and quantified.

The State of Michigan needs to continue to improve on communications transparency with a timetable, milestones, best practices, and newly identified risks on a statewide mapping system.


Line 5 – Public Trust and Risk Management



This is the first in a series of essays by FLOW board member Rick Kane on the vital issues of risk management and the responsibilities of public officials under the public trust doctrine. The issue has special meaning in light of the risks posed by the twin Enbridge pipelines that convey 23 million gallons of petroleum products through the Straits of Mackinac daily. Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America. He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.


Managing Risk and the Public Trust

Every day, we manage risk in our personal lives and for our families. I wonder what the weather will be like today; what should I wear, or do I need to prepare differently for my trip? There are consequences for not preparing, like getting wet, but the weather forecaster helps by providing the probability for rain and threat of severe weather. We listen, assess the risks, consider alternatives, and make a decision.

Envisioning scenarios, forecasting, and assessing risk are management activities performed in a variety of organizations. If the risks are too high, we take action to reduce them or, better yet, implement an alternative that eliminates the risk entirely. Alternatives analysis is a known but underutilized approach. Too often, organizations reduce risk by making incremental changes and not by using an alternative that could eliminate it. “It is not acceptable to harm people when there are reasonable alternatives - - - - It is not acceptable to harm the environment when there are reasonable alternatives.” In her book, Making Better Environmental Decisions, An Alternative to Risk Assessment, scientist and risk expert Mary O'Brien promotes alternatives - not just accepting risk assessments and incremental risk reduction strategies, i.e. identify and implement risk elimination alternatives.

For the big risks, we depend on elected officials and government regulators to take action in the best interest of public safety, environmental protection and economic interests. The Public Trust Doctrine is an important legal principle that they are required to apply to protect the waters of the Great Lakes. Risk and alternatives assessments are vital inputs needed to reach appropriate decisions under public trust law. 

The Public Trust Doctrine holds that government has a solemn obligation to protect the waters of the Great Lakes in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment. The state serves as a trustee and is accountable for managing the waters for the benefit of current and future generations. Any private, public, or commercial existing or proposed use, diversion, or discharge cannot cause harm by materially reducing the flow, changing the levels, or polluting the waters. Those who seek to use, continue to divert, or alter the waters have the burden of proof to show they will not impair, pollute, or cause harm, or the proposed action is not permitted. Under the public trust, the waters can never be controlled by or transferred to private interests for private purposes or gain. Public rights cannot be alienated or subordinated by our governments to special private interests. This means that all reasonable private use and public uses may be accommodated so long as the public trust waters and ecosystem are not harmed and paramount public right to public uses are not subordinated or impaired.

For government officials, it is a duty to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine and ensure that the principles are followed. Citizens should understand public trust and hold their elected officials accountable for protecting the waters of the Great Lakes on their behalf and for future generations.

It Takes All Kinds

Growing up in the chemical industry, working in the private, government and non-government sectors taught me that a balance between the sectors is required to obtain feasible and acceptable outcomes. Private companies cannot be relied upon to self-regulate as not all of them have everyone’s best interest in mind. But private sector technical experts are positioned to identify feasible, safer technologies and alternatives. They may also need to be pushed to implement them by shareholders and regulators. Elected officials and government regulators can ensure that the competitive field is level for industry players and that companies are following the rules.

But there are cases where rules go too far, resulting in unintended consequences. Professional societies and standard-setting organizations provide direction to scientists, engineers, and member professionals on ethics and best practices that they should be applying on the job; strong, ethical professionals make strong organizations. And non-government organizations (NGOs) promote public, social, and long-range goals, but there must also be a balance and analysis for unintended consequences.

Taking a systems or macro/micro view is also very important in assessing risk and alternatives. Limiting the boundaries of study or scope prematurely can result in flawed and fatal conclusions. Here is an example that affected a large part of the world.

When Things Go Wrong, and Hindsight Is 20/20

Risk management involves the use of simple to very complex methodologies. However, they all depend on a proper definition of the scope of study, the system, relevant facts, key assumptions, and taking action to fill in important information gaps. Flawed assessments result when the scope of studies are too limited, methodologies are inappropriately modified or faulty, biased assumptions are used. O'Brien’s book provides an excellent overview on where risk assessments can go wrong.

The Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster was the second worst in history, just behind the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. We use the Fukushima incident in teaching risk and process safety management. The Daiichi nuclear reactors were located on the Japanese coast and designed to withstand an earthquake and tsunami. The actual earthquake was larger than the safety design basis and the tsunami higher. The earthquake/tsunami triggered a number of failures that all had the same origin, in risk analysis terminology, “a common cause failure” – the earthquake/tsunami.

For safety, the reactors had a “layered or defense-in-depth” design to enable a safe shutdown in emergencies. But:

  • 1st line - electrical supply from off-site to power the cooling water pumps, this supply was lost in the initial earthquake.
  • 2nd line - emergency generators installed with the electrical switchgear in the basement, which flooded along with the generator fuel tanks when the tsunami hit.
  • 3rd line – the battery back-up system did not have enough capacity to enable completion of the shutdown.
  • And the emergency response was delayed because the company and country thought they could handle the incident on their own and did not want to admit how bad things really were.

In hindsight, the consequences of a nuclear meltdown were known, but could a better assessment have been done for the threat of locating the facility near the coast in an earthquake, tsunami prone area? What about the vulnerability analysis on the emergency shutdown systems and consideration of common cause failures? Was the “worst-case scenario” analysis faulty or biased for some reason? Today, parts of the area are still uninhabitable, although some residents have recently begun to return even when warned that radiation levels are still above safe levels. What next as this disaster continues?

Acceptable risk levels are based on the stakeholder’s tolerance for the risk. For example, for some citizens, an acceptable flood risk might be once every 500 years, while the acceptable risk of a human fatality from an industrial accident might be less than the probability from natural causes, say one in one million.

Risk assessments may be required to comply with federal, state, and/or local laws, insurance company policies, or company procedures. There are ethical principles: you cannot impose risk on someone else, and elected officials and government regulators have a duty to protect constituents and the environment. If you cannot live with a risk because the consequences are too high, then you must identify and implement an acceptable alternative. A Michigan high-risk and controversial example is the Enbridge pipeline.

Here are key terms in risk management:

  • Risk is a measure of human injury, environmental damage, or economic loss in terms of the likelihood that an incident will occur (probability) and the magnitude of the injury or loss (consequence).

Risk = Probability x Consequence

  • Probability can be further defined as a function of the threat, an event with the potential to cause loss or damage and the vulnerability, which is any weakness in the system or asset, that can be affected or exploited by accidental, natural, or man-made causes resulting in the harm. Thus, risk can then also be defined as:

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

  • Toxicological Risk Assessments for human health and living organisms define threat and vulnerability in terms of exposure and dose-response assessments to a harmful substance.
  • An Exposure assessment covers the most significant sources of environmental exposures, population potentially exposed, and concerns about cumulative or multiple exposures.
  • For a dose-response assessment, a dose-response curve for the route and level of exposure observed is developed and compared to the expected human or living organism exposure in the environment.
  • Risk assessments follow a stepwise process and can be a qualitative, judgement-based analysis, or a complex quantitative mathematical analysis.
  • Scope, System Boundaries, Macro/Micro, and Dynamics- When conducting a risk assessment, the definition of the scope (subject of study), system boundaries, and dynamics are extremely important. Events occurring outside of the boundaries and transitions affect risk. Major risks can be transient and occur during take-off and landing, start-up and shutdown, transition from one physical state to another, movement from one place to another, under certain weather conditions, and so on. AIChE, Center for Chemical Process Safety
  • The risk assessment process is known as Hazard Identification & Risk Assessment (HIRA, shown below). If the level of risk after one pass is not acceptable, risk reduction measures are added, and the process is repeated until an acceptable level of risk level is achieved; if not, a better alternative is pursued, and the current approach abandoned.


The Enbridge Pipeline - Line 5 Across the State of Michigan

Enbridge’s Line 5 is a 66-year-old pipeline that transports crude oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs) across the State of Michigan from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. From Superior to St. Ignace, Michigan, Line 5 is a 30-inch pipeline but divides into two 20-inch pipelines which then pass along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac and merge back into a 30-inch pipeline west of Mackinaw City to Sarnia. Many studies have been conducted on the 20-inch pipelines at the Straits covering environmental and economic risks, pipeline mechanical integrity, structural modifications, failure modes, and numerous legal issues. And recently, the State of Michigan signed a new agreement for a study on replacing the twin pipelines with a new pipeline and tunnel under the Straits. Information can be found at on the FLOW and Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board websites.

The Streetlight Effect


The streetlight effect, or the drunkard's search principle, is a type of observational bias that occurs when people only search for something where it is easiest to look. Both names refer to a well-known joke:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys, and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes, the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies no, and that he lost them in the park. The police officer asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is."

The risk analyses have primarily focused on the twin 20-inch pipelines and consequences of a crude oil release. However, the system risk must include the entire pipeline and products transported. The design, fabrication and protection technologies of 30-inch pipelines above and below the Straits are at lower standards than the 20-inch pipelines. There have been at least 29 leaks in Line 5 and a history of ongoing repairs and patching. The replacement of the 30-inch pipeline would be a huge expense and most likely be implemented after a tunnel project is started. The risks and lack of discussion (unknowns to the public outside of the Straits) were previously noted by FLOW. Living Along Enbridge Line 5 in Michigan. In only looking at the problem as being under the Straits, consider the allegory "The Street Light Effect."

A Confined Scope– assessments with scopes that are too narrowly defined restrict the consideration of alternatives and opportunities to eliminate risk. There are continuing strong arguments that feasible alternatives to Line 5 exist and that the pipeline can be decommissioned on a priority basis. This analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but details can be found at:  FLOW Alternatives Report 2015

Poor System Definition - system boundaries for Line 5 risk assessments have been limited to the 20-inch pipelines, as this is where the State of Michigan has authority and control over the Mackinac Straits bottomlands, i.e. the system study boundary is being set where there is legal control, not where the full existence of risk occurs. This in turn establishes a crude oil release as the primary threat because the consequences of a natural gas liquids (NGLs), (a mixture of largely propane with some ethane and butane), release would be small in comparison. Thus, this is a legally defined system and not one based on Line 5 system risk to human safety, the ecosystem, and economy. An NGL release poses a major risk to human safety and infrastructure along the entire Line 5 route. The risk is not transparent to the citizens of Michigan (only looking under the streetlight); they are not provided information on known unknowns and a consideration of possible unknown unknowns.

In terms of the risk equation- Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence 

What are the consequences, threats, and vulnerabilities outside of the Straits? For example, the impact of an NGLs leak.

Consequences - Line 5 travels near several populated areas: Ironwood, Manistique, Engadine, Naubinway, St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, Indian River, West Branch, Linwood, Bay City, Vassar, and Marysville, Michigan, and it transports NGLs about 20-30% of the time. NGLs are a liquid under Line 5 operating conditions but would flash into a vapor cloud if a leak occurred. According to the Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems, Inc. study contracted by the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board (MPSAB), a large underwater release under the Straits could create a flame envelope of just under one mile. But what if you are living or traveling near Line 5 upstream or downstream of the Straits? A ground level release and fireball could be much larger as the pipeline pressure is higher and distance between emergency shutoff valves greater.  

For a crude oil release, Line 5 crosses nearly 400 streams and wetlands and runs near many other sensitive public and environmental areas. Studies conducted for the state designate 74 water-crossing locations as “prioritized,” indicating sensitive areas vulnerable to a spill and including endangered species habitats and sites near drinking-water intake pipes. Some of the waterways include the renowned AuSable, Sturgeon, Manistique, and Rapid rivers, and the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Gogebic.

Defining the system in terms of legally controlled boundaries results in the risk to areas outside of the Straits being overlooked. In addition, the December 2018 Enbridge-State agreement enables threat to continue until at least 2024 as tunnel studies are conducted, and beyond if a tunnel project is launched. Meanwhile, the threats outside of the Straits continue.

Vulnerability to failures outside of the Straits have many known unknowns and possible unknown unknowns due to different operating conditions, design and maintenance and inspection programs, and environmental exposure conditions. For the public, there should be many questions, but unfortunately, with the focus on only the Straits, under the street light, citizens do not know that they should be asking safety questions.

Here Are Some Starting Questions

What are the risks for a release upstream or downstream of the Straits, especially for NGLs? What is the safety risk to populated areas from a fireball and the lakes and rivers to a crude oil spill? What are the plans to mitigate the risks now, with and without a tunnel project?

Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member

Based on the agreement signed by the State, current operations at the Straits can continue to 2024 and beyond with minimal additional monitoring and on-site emergency response. Why are “extraordinary” emergency response measures not required to counter the extreme consequences that would occur at the Straits? This is a normal requirement in other high consequence, non-mitigated risk situations.

What are the plans for the entire pipeline system, especially outside of the Straits where the design and mechanical integrity is known to be less than at the Straits? Should citizens expect a segment by segment replacement as was done on Line 6B/78 in southern Michigan?


Living Along Enbridge Line 5 in Michigan


If you live anywhere along the route of Enbridge’s Line 5 crude oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs) pipeline, which travels 547 miles across the Upper Peninsula, the Straits of Mackinac, and down through Lower Michigan, you should be asking state and local government officials and emergency responders a lot of questions. You should know whether your family’s safety is at risk. Public focus is on the environmental and economic impact of a pipeline failure and crude oil release at the Straits of Mackinac, and now, and an agreement for a possible oil pipeline tunnel in 10 years.[1]  This “tunnel vision” does not solve the human safety and property damage impacts along the other 539 miles of pipeline route, not only from a crude oil release, but also from the potential for a huge fireball resulting from an NGLs release.

The integrity of the Line 5 pipeline outside of the Straits is known to be questionable, as evidenced by at least 29 documented spills totaling 1.1 million gallons of oil, numerous repairs, and use of a lower standard of materials and construction for the single 30” pipeline compared to the twin 20” pipelines under the Straits.[2]

                  photo: Bill Latka

Line 5 also transports large quantities of NGLs, a mixture of propane and butane (and perhaps ethane), which is a liquid under the pressure of Line 5’s operation and a gas when released. The NGLs composition in Line 5 as reported by Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems, Inc., the consultant hired by the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board (MPSAB) is largely propane.[3]  Propane is commonly used for home and commercial heating and chemical production, and is purchased everywhere for home barbecues. If Line 5 fails when it is carrying NGLs (which is 20% to 30% of the time), the released NGLs could quickly flash into a gas, ignite, and create a large fire. If ignition is delayed several minutes, a vapor cloud explosion and huge fireball could occur. The public safety and property damage impacts of a Line 5 NGLs release anywhere along its 547-mile length in Michigan are not being questioned vigorously enoughWhat would be the impact of a NGLs release, fire, and/or vapor cloud explosion?

The Dynamic Risk study included several NGLs underwater release scenarios at the Straits to determine if the resultant fireball would impact the Mackinac Bridge and people in vehicles on the Bridge. Modeling showed that a full-bore 20” pipeline failure at the bottom of the Straits could create a flame envelope of just under one mile, but not touch the Bridge. But what if you are living or traveling near Line 5 upstream or downstream of a new Straits tunnel? Line 5, along its 547-mile length in Michigan:

  • Travels through several populated areas along its route: Ironwood, Manistique, Engadine, Naubinway, St. Ignace, Mackinac City, Indian River, West Branch, Linwood, Bay City, Vassar, and Marysville, Michigan.
  • Crosses nearly 400 streams, wetlands, or other water bodies in Michigan, runs near many inland lakes, endangering fishing, wildlife, private property, businesses, riparian owners, and the public. Studies conducted for the state designate 74 water-crossing locations as “prioritized,” indicating sensitive areas vulnerable to a spill and including endangered species habitat and sites near drinking-water intake pipes. Some of the waterways include the renowned AuSable, Sturgeon, Manistique, and Rapid rivers, and the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Gogebic.
  • Is 65 years old, primarily designed to carry crude oil, but also NGLs, which as a gas or vapor cloud are highly flammable and explosive.
  • Is 30” in diameter outside the Straits, thinner, longitudinally welded, and can fail like Enbridge Line 6B did in 2010 in the Kalamazoo River watershed, which resulted in the largest inland heavy crude oil spill in U.S. history.
  • Has leaked 29 times upstream and downstream of the Straits, and has been dug up, inspected, and repaired due to detected “anomalies.” In May 2018, Enbridge was fined $ 1.8 million for failing to meet mandated inspection requirements imposed by a consent decree from the Line 6B disaster.

The nearly one-mile flame envelope for an NGLs release at the Straits was determined using a proprietary computer model that is widely used by industry for safety and risk management studies. Could a much larger fireball occur for a pipeline failure outside of the Straits?  The answer clearly is: Yes. 

An NGL release could be much larger because it would not necessarily be in deep water experiencing hydrostatic pressure resistance. NGL pipeline pressure at other locations could also be higher as a leak at the Straits would be on the low-pressure side of the Mackinac City pumping station. The distance between shutoff valves outside the Straits is also greater, which would result in larger release quantities and fireballs.

By Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member and Advisor

Citizens along the entire route of Line 5 should not be lulled into thinking that the risk is only at the Straits and that it will be solved with “tunnel vision.” What is the risk to your family and neighborhood from NGLs and vapor cloud explosion? Do you know where Line 5 is? Do local authorities and emergency responders have disaster scenario information and response plans? This information should be available to you and not out of sight due to “tunnel vision.”

Importantly, there are alternatives to the continued operation of Line 5, which is not vital to Michigan or U.S. interests, as documented in FLOW’s December 2015 report. Line 5 enables the export of Canadian oil, with Michigan being the shortcut and taking all of the risks. Don’t be lulled by “tunnel vision.”


Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America.  He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.


[1]  Detroit News Lansing Bureau, “Line 5 tunnel talks set to gain steam”, Published 11:55 p.m. ET, June 4, 2018 | Updated 12:00 a.m. ET June 5, 2018, http://www.detroitnews.com/staff/10046778/jonathan-oosting/

[2] FLOW (For Love of Water) Public Comments on the Joint Application of Enbridge Energy to Occupy Great Lakes Bottomlands for Anchoring Support Structures and Improvements for Line 5 Pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Michigan [HNC- AR90-WAHM0], May 11, 2018,  http://flowforwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/FINAL-FLOW-public-comments-on-Anchor-Permit-05-11-18.pdf 

[3] Dynamic Risk Assessments Systems, Inc., Alternative Analysis for the Straits Pipeline Final Report, October 26, 2017, https://mipetroleumpipelines.com