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State officials want details from Enbridge about the condition of oil pipelines under Lake Michigan

Mar 24, 2016

Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 goes right under Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.

At the Straits, it splits into two pipelines. Both pipelines are 63 years old (they were installed in 1953).

Right now, we don’t have all the information about the condition of those pipelines. As we’ve reported many times, Enbridge holds all the cards. The company has shared some information with the public, but not a lot.

State officials recently asked the company for more details about the condition of Line 5. They want records to verify what Enbridge has been saying all along – that the pipelines are safe.

An image of the tool used to measure corrosion in oil pipelines.
Credit Enbridge

One of the main things state officials want is records and reports from the company’s inline inspection tools. These are tools that run through the inside of the pipelines – kind of like an ultrasound machine. They provide the best information about the condition of these pipelines.

When I reached out to Enbridge for comment, they said they’re still reviewing the state’s request, and they sent along a statement that said, in part:

We fully understand that Michigan residents and their representatives at the State continue to need information on Line 5 and everything we do to make sure the line operates safely. As you may be aware, Enbridge has undertaken significant efforts to make sure that Michigan residents have access to information with respect to its operations in Michigan.  We now have a dedicated section of our website for Line 5, where we are posting studies (such as the study on mussels), integrity data, fact sheets on how we protect the Straits and other sensitive areas along Line 5, videos and more.  We are continuing to populate that section of our website as new materials are developed and, in fact, much of the information the State is requesting is already posted publicly.

As you can see in the state's letter to Enbridge, they want more than just summary information.

They want actual reports and data. The state gave Enbridge until next month to comply.

How the state plans to evaluate the reports  

Because the state doesn’t have the expertise to analyze these sorts of records, it’s in the process of hiring an outside company. That company will do what officials call a “risk analysis” and an “alternative analysis.” These analyses were called for by the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force in a report they issued last year.

"The attorney general has said, time and time again, that the days of this pipeline are limited." — Andrea Bitely, spokesperson for the attorney general's office

The state has two goals.  

The first is to figure out the condition and risks associated with the pipelines. The second is to determine what would happen if the pipelines were to be shut down. What other routes could Enbridge use to move the oil and gas?

I talked with Andrea Bitely about this. She’s the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.

“The attorney general has said, time and time again, that the days of this pipeline are limited,” Bitely said. “And doing these independent analyses — this independent risk analysis and the alternative analysis — will tell us what’s next.”

The legal contract Line 5 depends on

The state of Michigan and Enbridge have a legal contract that dates back to 1953. In the contract there’s an easement that allows Enbridge to have Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac. It’s the legal lever the state is using to negotiate with Enbridge.

I talked to Mike Shriberg about what the state is planning here. He’s the executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

“The risks and alternatives analysis the state is undertaking is designed to see whether the easement should be invalidated,” Shriberg said. “There’s no time limit on the easement. The state would have to say that it’s no longer a valid easement because it’s not a prudent use of the state’s resources and of the Great Lakes.”

The company maintains that Line 5 under the Straits is in excellent condition. They want to keep operating it. The pipelines move more than a half million barrels of oil and natural gas liquids a day.

What Enbridge has released so far

Last December, Enbridge released some details to the public from their inspection tools. That information showed there is some corrosion in the pipelines' inside walls.

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Credit Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan

Corrosion, the experts tell us, is the biggest risk to these pipelines. But Enbridge says it’s well within what they call “operational safety standards.”

They listed the biggest "corrosion feature" in their summary report:

The deepest was 26 percent and 7.3 inches long, which makes it the longest feature as well—but still only half as deep as it would need to be to require repairs, as set out by regulatory standards.

And they listed "mill anomalies" in their report as well (places where the pipelines' wall thickness isn't .812 inches because of how they were originally built):

The peak depth of mill anomalies on the East and West pipelines was 37 and 41 percent of the wall thickness, respectively.

We’ve been asking Enbridge to verify those claims for a long time.

I spoke with Brad Shamla a year and a half ago about this. He’s the vice president of U.S. Operations for Enbridge.

“We’re certainly heading in that direction and wanting to be transparent. And again, taking information that we can get out there that people can see and understand and also that can’t be taken out of context,” Shamla said.

But that hasn’t happened yet.

Enbridge says it has released information, but the information the company released isn’t what the state’s looking for.

We also pushed the federal government for this information, but they said they didn’t have the records.

If the company complies, we might finally get the details we’ve been looking for next month. Officials with the attorney general’s office say they’ll make the information public if they get it.

*Editor’s Note: Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.