Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 goes right under Lake Michigan. It splits into two pipelines at the Straits, and it was recently announced that the supports that hold the pipeline in place are not in compliance with a 1953 easement agreement with the state.
The easement says the pipelines have to be supported every 75 feet. In its inspections over the summer, Enbridge found four places where unsupported spans went beyond 75 feet.
The company found similar problems in 2014 and installed around 40 underwater anchors that summer to correct the problems.
So, after just two years, more spans exceeding the 75-foot limit were found. The lakebed at the bottom of the Straits is constantly changing. Strong currents sweep away sediment and can change the shape of the bottom.
“It’s an ongoing process. This is just ongoing maintenance that we have to do there and that we have to stay on top of,” says Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy.
Since 2002, Enbridge has been using anchors that screw into the lakebed to support the pipelines. A diver goes to the bottom and installs them.
Enbridge says they have installed more than 100 of these screw-type anchors, and none of them have failed.
They want to install 22 more this fall: Four to correct the span distance issue, and 18 to be “proactive,” Duffy says – putting anchors in places where span distances are getting close to 75 feet.
Permission from the government to do the work
Right now, they’re waiting on a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start the work.
Some environmental groups have been actively calling for the shutdown of Line 5 under the Straits. They argue that this is the time the state should use its authority to shut down the pipelines.
Liz Kirkwood of the group For Love of Water says the state of Michigan should allow Enbridge to correct the span distance requirement for the four areas of concern, but should require a full environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act for the other 18 anchors Enbridge wants to install.
More from the group For Love of Water:
“Enbridge’s piecemeal approach to managing washouts and installing adequate support under the Straits crossing of Line 5 has resulted in the line frequently being out of compliance with easement support requirements since the 1970’s,” said Ed Timm, PhD, an engineer advising FLOW. “Washouts are inherently unpredictable and it is likely that damage to the pipe has already occurred because of unsupported spans that were not detected and repaired by Enbridge’s two-year inspection and repair schedule.”
Enbridge says the 20-inch pipelines can handle unsupported spans of 140 feet and that the average span distance in the Straits is 50 feet.
What is the condition of the 63-year-old pipelines?
After years of asking the company about the actual condition of the pipelines, Enbridge did release information to the public late last year. So we know there are some spots of corrosion inside the pipeline, the pipeline has some dents, and it has what the company calls “minor” cracks. And there are also these things called “mill anomalies.” That means in some places the walls of the pipeline are not as thick as the original design called for (.812 inches).
So in recent months, we’ve been hearing a change in tone when Enbridge talks about the pipelines.
Before, officials said the pipelines were "like new, and in excellent condition."
Today, company officials talk about Line 5 under the Straits this way: "while it's not perfect, we know through our very rigorous inspection process that the line is in very good condition."
I asked Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy about this change in tone. He says nothing’s changed from their viewpoint.
“You know, I want to be clear, if we ever saw anything that was wrong with it, or any problems with Line 5, we wouldn’t continue to operate it,” he said.
So when it comes to information about unsupported span length, and the overall condition of the pipelines, we’re left to take Enbridge’s word for it. The company holds all the cards when it comes to information about these pipelines. They inspect them, and they choose what information to release to the public about it.
Independent studies commissioned by the state of Michigan
This summer, the state chose two different contractors to do a couple of independent analyses of the pipelines.
One is a risk analysis. It will look at how much oil could potentially spill from the pipelines if a break were to occur. And it will also look at what might happen to the ecology of the lakes if oil spills.
The other study is a look at alternatives: where else could we move the oil and natural gas liquids if we took these pipelines out of the Straits of Mackinac?
There will not be any kind of independent verification of the condition of the pipelines, so this is not an analysis of how likely it is that there will be a spill. The risk analysis is simply looking at how well Enbridge can contain a spill if one were to happen.
When you talk to environmental groups, they’ll tell you that’s what’s lacking here.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Mike Shriberg says it's a concern.
“There is not, in any significant way, third party verification going on right now,” he says.
Shriberg says that’s why his group is suing the federal government; for a lack of independent oversight over these pipelines.
Earlier this year, Enbridge did release what they call an independent review of the pipeline.
That report can be read here. It was done by the Lamontagne Pipeline Assessment Corporation for PHMSA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Enbridge says the report gave the twin pipelines “a clean bill of health,” and that the pipelines are “fit for service” as they call it.
But the report states that the analysis is only a “partial fitness-for-service assessment” since they were charged with analyzing certain parts of the pipeline. And all the data for the assessment was supplied by Enbridge.
We're hearing calls for Line 5 to be shut down... but the state's power is limited
The state has no oversight over these kinds of oil pipelines; that oversight is up to the federal government.
All the state has is this easement (a legal contract that allows Enbridge to have the pipelines run through the Great Lakes). A court would have to find that Enbridge was in violation of that easement, and there could be appeals and the whole process could take a long time.
*Editor’s note: Enbridge is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.