Saving the Straits of Mackinac
Yesterday, May 22, 2018, marks the day that our state’s citizens, threatened with the terrible harm of an oil spill from a failed Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, took matters into their own hands. The Straits of Mackinac Alliance (SMA) filed a contested-case petition with the Administrative Law Tribunal of Michigan. The tribunal hears cases, like a trial court, when citizens oppose state permits that violate the law. The SMA has filed a petition that would require the Department of Environmental Quality and Attorney General Bill Schuette to start applying state law that is supposed to protect the Great Lakes, and stop the flow of oil through Enbridge Line 5 in the Straits. The filing of this contested case is a major shift in this prolonged affair, a shift that will finally bring state officials and Enbridge under the rule of law. This essay explains why. But first, a brief history of what has happened to force citizens to take charge because leaders have failed to act is in order.
A Brief History
In September 2015, Michigan Attorney General Schuette staged a flurry of media events to proclaim that days of crude oil transport in the twin pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac “were numbered.” His exclamation came on the heels of the release of the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force’s report that concluded a spill in the Straits was unacceptable to anyone, that the State had jurisdiction over the siting and existence of the pipeline under a 1953 easement and the public trust in the Great Lakes that is embodied in a state law known as the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act–the GLSLA. Enbridge was forewarned. The State was going to take charge, right?
Wrong. Within a few days, the media messaging from the Governor’s office was (to paraphrase): “Sure it’s days are numbered, but that number could be a long time.” Shortly after that, the Governor appointed the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Advisory Board– a well-intended study commission with absolutely no power to do anything that would bind Enbridge or the State. The Advisory Board has met for almost three years now. Before the Board could agree on any suggested course of action for the State to address Line 5, in late 2017 Governor Snyder bypassed his own advisory board and unilaterally signed an agreement with Enbridge that establishes a framework for the long-term flow of crude oil across the Straits of Mackinac. The agreement gave Enbridge permission to replace the segment of Line 5 under the St. Clair River and to replace Line 5 on the bottom of the Straits with a tunnel or trenched pipeline to escape the strike of ship anchors. If not contested under rule of law that protects the public trust in the lakebeds and waters of the Great Lakes, the investment in replacement could all but seal the replacement of the 645-mile long Line 5. The agreement rubber-stamps Enbridge’s efforts to spend billions to entrench its own massive Keystone XL pipeline right here in the Great Lakes. Michigan has become the host state for the transport of Canadian tar sands oil to Canada and foreign ports, including that charming land of royal weddings– Great Britain. Why does the governor and not the law of the Great Lakes and the citizens of Michigan through our elected officials or under rule of law decide the fate of crude oil in and out of the Great Lakes basin?
But this is only half of the story. While the advisory board continued to hold meeting after meeting for the public to vent its frustration, the DEQ and Attorney General unwittingly if not unlawfully cooperated with Enbridge to keep the oil flowing through pipelines in the Straits, pipelines whose design is failing. Enbridge submitted information that showed loss of protective cover. Then the company disclosed the Kiefner Report, a 2016 survey of the twin pipelines that referred to a 2003 report that warned of scouring under the lines, leaving spans as long as 282 feet suspended in the water column above the lakebed and exposing the lines to powerful currents that could whip them back and forth like a coat hanger. The Kiefner report also disclosed a series of emergency measures to address the failure of the original design that was supposed to lay, tucked into the bottomlands under the Straits. In 2001, the company tried to stabilize the twin lines with grout bags. When these failed, the for the company fastened 16 saddles to the pipelines, supporting the saddles and lines by leg supports crewed into the lakebed. This was just the beginning. Scouring has plagued the integrity of these pipelines so much, that from 2001 to 2018, Enbridge has installed 150 supports– almost two miles of pipelines are suspended in the water like a bridge over the lakebed.
A New or Changed in Design
The installation of these anchor supports has completely changed the design of the pipelines in the Straits. And this has been done with the knowledge and help of the DEQ and Attorney General Schuette. Here’s how. Since 2014, Enbridge has filed several applications for permits under the GLSLA to install these anchor supports as “repairs” or “maintenance” measures. Enbridge received its most recent “repair” permit on March 25, 2018 for the 22 supports mentioned above. In April Enbridge filed yet another application for 48 more supports to the pipelines— if approved, nearly 3 miles of pipeline originally designed in 1953 to lay on the lakebed will be suspended in the water!
How did Enbridge change miles of its original design as “repairs” or “maintenance?” The DEQ and Attorney General have dropped the ball. It’s called complicity. In 2017, citizens in the Straits, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa tribe, and For Love of Water (FLOW) filed extensive reports that demonstrated this substantial change in design carried serious and imminent risks. Evidence showed that currents or other natural forces pulled the anchors out of the lakebed, scraped off pipeline coating to bare metal, exposing the lines to corrosion. Equally disturbing, these reports demonstrated that the massive change in design of the pipelines has never been approved or authorized by the DEQ as required by law. Despite these proofs and clear legal requirements, the DEQ and Attorney General staff stonewalled the tribe’s and citizens groups’ patently obvious charge that miles of suspended pipelines were a new or substantial change in design, not “repair” or “maintenance,” subject to required comprehensive review under the GLSLA and public trust in the lakebed and waters of the Straits.
This spring, an anchor from a vessel struck a pipeline enclosing an electric line across the Straits that released contaminants. It turns out inspections have shown that the anchor struck the Enbridge pipelines, denting them by a half-inch. In addition to strong currents, the greatest risk identified by experts to the pipelines in the Straits is an anchor strike. Fortunately, the anchor struck near but not along segments of pipelines suspended above the lakebed. If it had, the result could have been catastrophic. There’s nothing like a “repair” that changes the design of these pipelines in a way that will snag anchors dragging over them from a passing ship.
So what does the GLSLA say about these permits for “repair” or “maintenance?” Nothing. The GLSLA law and regulations do not provide for these kind of under-the-radar permits. The DEQ and Attorney General have interpreted the law to favor Enbridge. In legal fact, the GLSLA requires that a new, altered or changed structure or improvement like the addition of miles of suspended pipeline in the waters of the Great Lakes must obtain a new agreement for occupancy and permit for the new pipeline design and structures. The GLSLA requires Enbridge to file a comprehensive study of all potential adverse impacts that could arise from such a change in design of the pipelines. The law and regulations also require Enbridge to prove there are no other feasible and prudent alternatives to Line 5 in the Straits– including the obvious adjustments to the capacity in Line 6b (now 78) across southern Michigan to Sarnia. The design capacity of Line 6b was doubled after the Kalamazoo River spill, and can handle crude oil flowing through Line 5 in the Straits.
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
In short, DEQ and Attorney General have sided with Enbridge in allowing the continued flow of oil in pipelines that have been substantially redesigned without authorization or approval under the GLSLA. Officials claim the supports are better than doing nothing, that some of them are required by a consent decree, that it’s a matter of safety for the pipelines. This misses the point. If there is no authorization under GLSLA for the new or modified design, and if it hasn’t been evaluated or permitted as required by the law, then why does it matter that oil should continue to flow through Enbridge’s pipelines? It doesn’t. If there is no authority, the new design has not been evaluated, the new design and existing line are failing, and risks are imminent, it is unlawful. For three years, government officials could have taken charge.
But they haven’t. All our leaders have to do is invoke the GLSLA law and rules, demand Enbridge obtain authorization and permits for the new design as a whole, and demonstrate no potential adverse effects, and no alternative. Until Enbridge does this, the GLSLA authorizes emergency measures or conditions– at this point quite obvious– to suspend the flow of oil in these dangerous lines until the company has the authority required by law. If the company cannot establish this according to the rule of law under the GLSLA, then the authorization and permits for this new or substantially changed design should be denied. Enbridge can use its thousands of miles connecting to other pipelines in North America. But there is no alternative if there is a spill or release in the Straits of Mackinac.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
I applaud the Straits of Mackinac Alliance and citizens and the Grand Traverse Band for filing a contested case. In my view, they are on solid ground. Finally, someone has decided to do the job that our government leaders should have done. I applaud my own organization for charting a course that brings Enbridge Line 5 under the rule of law, not a bureaucratic invention. I urge our Governor, Director of DEQ, and Attorney General to join the side of citizens and tribes and invoke the available rule of law under the GLSLA to protect the Great Lakes.