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Enbridge to Increase Oil Flow through Straits of Mackinac

The Enbridge oil pipeline runs underneath the Straits west of the Mighty Mac

The same company responsible for the worst inland oil spill ever wants to increase the amount of oil going through its pipeline under the Straits of Mackinaw.

Enbridge Energy says it has increased safety inspections since the disaster at the Kalamazoo River a couple of years ago. And the company says the pipeline that runs underwater west of the Mackinaw Bridge is perfectly safe.

But a Great Lakes environmental group isn’t convinced and is trying to stop the plan.

Sunken Hazard
The National Wildlife Federation says there isn’t enough oversight of what’s proposed for the sensitive stretch of water in the Straits. It says pushing two million more gallons a day through the nearly sixty year old oil pipeline would create a hazard.

Using numbers from Enbridge Energy’s plans, the Wildlife Federation calculates that if a spill occurred in the Straits, currents there could spread the oil to Mackinaw City and Mackinaw Island before the first clean-up crews would arrive. And the longer the response time, the more oil would spread in both directions into upper lakes Michigan and Huron.

“We need to do whatever it takes to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophe that could well rival the BP oil spill,” says Andy Buchsbaum director of the Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

Buchsbaum says, once approved, the upgraded pipeline could carry heavy crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in Detroit and Sarnia, Ontario. And he says heavy crude is much more corrosive than other materials and flows under higher pressure, thus putting extra stress on the line. It’s also heavier than light crude oil and harder to clean up because it sinks to the bottom.

Got It Wrong
But Larry Springer of Enbridge says the Wildlife Federation got it wrong. “First of all let me stress that a release in this area is very unlikely because of the type of pipe and how heavy it is.”

Springer says the pipeline, known as line 5, never has carried heavy crude and never will. And he says if properly maintained it will last indefinitely. And Springer says the line was tested this summer to carry additional volume.

“Those tests were successful. And the work is now proceeding at the pump stations, to upgrade those pump stations, so that by early next year we’ll be able to move increased volumes through the pipeline,” Springer says.

But that doesn’t convince researchers at the Wildlife Federation. They say once the pipeline upgrade is approved, the company can pump different materials through it without notifying anyone.

Track Record
And Federation researchers point to Enbridge’s poor response time, 17 hours, in announcing the Kalamazoo River spill. In that case, there was a delay of several days before the company admitted the spill was of heavy crude.

A study by the National Transportation Safety Board released this summer also noted that Enbridge knew of cracks in that pipe five years before the spill.

Beth Wallace co-wrote a new study for the National Wildlife Federation called Sunken Hazard. It found reports of least 80 spills in Enbridge’s North American pipeline system over the last decade.

“Despite the devastation they’ve caused in the region, federal and state agencies are turning a blind eye to the abysmal safety record and allowing Enbridge to expand without questions,” Wallace says.

According to Enbridge, it has met all safety tests for approval of the upgraded Mackinaw Straits pipeline. No federal or state permit is required.

But a federal pipeline safety agency is supposed to review the plan. That’s the same agency cited for lax oversight of Enbridge’s pipeline that spilled into the Kalamazoo River.