Areas of missing protective coating on aging, underwater oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are larger than state officials were initially led to believe — more than a foot-and-a-half in diameter in spots.
The discovery of larger gaps is prompting a new round of questions about a Canadian oil transport giant's oversight of the pipes, and its transparency with state officials about problems with them.
Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy late last month described the areas of exposed bare metal on the underwater pipes as "Band-Aid sized." But inspection reports Enbridge shared with the state earlier this month, in response to requests for more information about the lost coating, show eight areas on the twin lines where bare metal is exposed to the elements. All but one measures 7 inches or more in diameter.
"The state feels this new information calls into question Enbridge's stewardship of Line 5 and raises concerns about its condition beyond the Straits of Mackinac," Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Melody Kindraka said.
Duffy on Friday said the company had identified "areas of concern" on the pipes, and that it took sending divers to inspect those areas directly to confirm the gaps in protective coating.
"Our inspection process worked well, and all of those pieces in the process together helped lead us to the section that needed to be repaired," he said.
Line 5 ships up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day through the Upper Peninsula, then south through the Lower Peninsula to Sarnia, Ontario, and beyond. The pipeline splits into twin, 20-inch pipes underwater at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac for more than 4 miles before reconnecting into one transmission line in the Lower Peninsula.
The missing enamel coating was discovered during pipeline inspections required in a 2016 consent decree between Enbridge and the federal government, part of a settlement stemming from a massive oil spill from an Enbridge oil transmission line near Marshall, Mich., in July 2010 that fouled more than 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River and prompted a four-year cleanup that cost more than $1 billion. Enbridge was fined $61 million as part of an overall $177-million settlement that required improvements to its pipeline networks.
Critics of the Straits pipelines — which were built in 1953 — say a spill there like the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill would cause an ecological disaster on the Great Lakes, damaging shoreline and island communities and the state's multibillion-dollar boating, fishing, tourism and other industries.
"This is further evidence that State Attorney General Bill Schuette needs to act now to shut down Line 5," said Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for Oil & Water Don't Mix, a nonprofit consisting of citizens, environmental groups, businesses and local and tribal governments opposed to Line 5's continued operation in the Straits.
The exposed pipeline areas, along with recent revelations of years of improper mooring of the pipe on the Straits bottom, both put Enbridge out-of-compliance with state requirements in the 1953 easement allowing Line 5 in the Great Lakes, and are enough to take action, McBrearty said.
"The state keeps viewing all of these violations of the easement as separate incidents, rather than looking at the totality and the cumulative impacts of it," he said.
In a work plan filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2016 that looked at the impact of plants, invasive quagga mussels and other aquatic life on Line 5 — as required in its consent decree from the Kalamazoo River spill — an Enbridge contractor referenced multiple "holidays" on the pipe, an industry term for missing protective coating, and described in detail where the gaps were located.
In response to state officials' requests for more information about the holidays, Enbridge officials in March responded that the company "has seen no evidence that any of the areas identified in the Biota Work Plan as 'holiday' areas with 'potential delaminated coating' have bare metal exposed."
Enbridge's underwater inspections last month — part of implementing the Biota Work Plan — then discovered the bare-metal exposures, according to company officials.
Schuette, along with DEQ Director C. Heidi Grether and state Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, in a Sept. 1 letter to Enbridge, said the missing coating — and discovery that one area of it appears to have been caused by the installation of anchor supports, but was not repaired — "raises several serious concerns."
"The fact that damage to the external coating went 'undetected' and unreported by Enbridge for some time after the damage was apparently caused by an Enbridge contractor casts doubt on Enbridge's stewardship of the pipeline and its diligence in minimizing risks associated with its operation," the state officials' letter stated.
"As a practical matter, the damage to the coating would presumably have been evident to the contractor at the time the anchor was installed."
The finding casts doubt about protective coating integrity at the 127 other locations at which Enbridge has installed anchors on the pipeline since 2002, state officials stated. The external coating, they wrote, "is an integral part of the pipeline design that was and remains a condition of the 1953 Easement."
In a Sept. 8 response to the state, Enbridge Vice President of U.S. Operations Bradley Shamla said the company was preparing to "immediately address both the repairs of the identified small coating gaps and the inspection of the coating at all existing support anchor locations."
A "white substance" was observed around one of the areas of exposed pipe, and "is being analyzed," Shamla said.
The pipes are still safe, he emphasized.
"Visual inspection by the divers, cathodic protection readings and recent 2017 inline inspection data all confirm that there is no corrosion or metal loss at these locations," Shamla stated in his letter. "Likewise, the high-pressure hydrotest recently successfully conducted by Enbridge on the dual pipelines demonstrates that the safety and integrity of the two lines is not in question."
But Edward Timm has questions.
Timm, a retired Dow Chemical engineer with a PhD in fluid mechanics, who has studied Line 5 for the past few years, said the company "has been playing cute with all of this documentation" about pipeline problems, with information rarely coming from the company immediately and of its own volition. That, he believes, has led to the recent angrier tone from state officials.
"They've been blindsided so many times on the facts, it's hazardous for their careers to trust Enbridge any further," he said.
"Enbridge has been playing games with the condition of this pipe for quite some time — and have been actively working to make it as difficult as possible to assess the condition of the pipe; all the while, checking all of the legal boxes to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do."
The state Pipeline Safety Advisory Board will meet in Lansing on Monday and discuss various matters surrounding Line 5. Kindraka did not answer whether a temporary suspension or full shutdown of oil flows through the Straits while the pipeline issues are thoroughly evaluated and repaired will be a topic of discussion.
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