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We're still waiting for confirmation on the health of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac

Sep 2, 2015

In 2010, we were given a pretty good reason to care about how companies maintain the 3,280 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines crisscrossing our state.

Being the state that suffered through the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history has that effect.

So people perked up when they found out that Enbridge, the company responsible for the Kalamazoo River oil spill, owns another pipeline that travels under Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.

If Michigan has a “crown jewel,” this area might be it.

And Enbridge has a pair of 62-year-old pipelines moving 540,000 barrels of light crude oil or liquid natural gas through this crown jewel every day.

It’s no surprise people are calling for the company to shut the pipeline down.

Protesters rallied at the state Capitol on July 30, 2015 demanding that an oil and gas pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down.
Credit Jake Neher / MPRN

If a major oil spill were to occur, experts figure this is how far the oil might spread.

But Enbridge says the Line 5 pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac are safe and in “excellent” condition. They’ll even show you how much work they’re doing to maintain them.

Age has nothing to do with it

Of the more than 15,000 miles of petroleum pipelines the company maintains, the twin pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac are by far the most inspected, company spokesperson Jason Manshum told me.

And just because they’re old, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going bad. Experts say it depends a lot on how they’ve been maintained and operated over the years.

Carl Weimer, with the watchdog group the National Pipeline Safety Trust, says their group has seen pipelines that have been operated and maintained so well they look like new pipelines.

"... it really depends on how the company has been operating and maintaining it, and that's a really hard thing to find out."

“And on the other hand we’ve seen new pipelines that look like they’re 80 years old, or are in bad shape, so it really depends on how the company has been operating and maintaining it,” he said. “And that’s a really hard thing to find out.”

"Trust us"

The twin pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac are smaller in diameter (20 inches), and made of thicker steel than the pipelines traveling over land. The Straits pipelines, when they were installed 62 years ago, were almost an inch thick (.812 inches).

How thick are those steel walls now?

"Thick enough," the company will tell you.

One of the most important inspection tools the company runs through Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac is something called an “inline inspection tool.”

Think of one of those plastic pneumatic tubes you might use at the drive-through at your bank.

For Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac, the tool is slipped into the pipeline on the Upper Peninsula side, travels through the pipeline taking in data as it goes, and is removed on the Lower Peninsula side.

Enbridge has this image of an inline inspection tool:

An image of an inline inspection tool running through a pipeline.
Credit Enbridge Energy

Experts tell us that the tools that monitor for corrosion can be pretty darn accurate. But just to be sure the tools are correct, companies will also go take a physical look at the pipeline.

On land, they dig the pipe up to have a look. Underwater, they send a diver down.

Like Enbridge did here. This diver went down on Line 5 to inspect a dent that the tool showed in 2012. This is from a series of videos Enbridge shared with the state of Michigan last year. 

Note that the diver has to strip the pipe of mussels and other debris to get a look at the coating around the pipe.

So we know the company is doing inspections on Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac. We just have no idea what those inspections are turning up.

As an example, when I asked what that diver found, the company sent this reply in October 2014:

The final report from this visual inspection has not yet been received from the inspection vendor to confirm the presence of a dent.

When asked again about this inspection, and about other summary inspection reports on Line 5, I’m told the company is working on a way to produce the data for all of Line 5 “in a way that can be interpreted by the public.”

Data shared, but no one charged with making sense of it

With all the concern over Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, you know Michigan politicians are eager to show they’re working hard on the issue.

Last year, Michigan officials sent a list of questions they wanted answered from Enbridge. One question included the “findings obtained” from the company’s inline inspections.

Enbridge gave the state access to their latest inline inspection tool run at that time. State officials told me they had not gone through the data when we published a story last fall. (They were also prevented from sharing the data with us.)

Fast-forward nine months and the release of the much-anticipated Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force Report, and we still don’t know what the data show.

In the report, state officials said the information they received was “incomplete.”

At a meeting last week with the state task force, Enbridge officials countered that all the data were there, but it was just “too complex” for the state to interpret.

Garret Ellison of the Grand Rapids Press quoted Cynthia Hansen, a senior vice-president with Enbridge from that meeting.

"It's not so much that we didn't share the information, it's that some of it was really complex and they didn't necessarily understand it," said Hansen. 

Enbridge told us the same thing last year when we asked for the information. That it would be equivalent to us looking at an MRI without being trained in the art of interpreting the scans.

Well, we couldn’t interpret it, but we probably could find an expert to look at it. And the state could too, for that matter.

It’s something state officials say they’re looking into now. From the Grand Rapids Press:

The state is currently researching third parties capable of the task. Officials have said Enbridge would pay for the study while Michigan picks the team.

Federal agency not much help

In the meantime, the federal agency charged with overseeing the safety of the pipeline is just not much help.

The inspection records are kept in such a way that they’re exempt from our FOIA requests. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) doesn’t have them. They simply inspect reports or documents that Enbridge keeps.

"PHMSA doesn't require the companies to submit the information in any form."

 “PHMSA doesn’t require the companies to submit the information in any form. When they do an inspection, they’ll either go into the office and look at the information that’s physically there, or log into a website where it’s at … the federal regulators, at least, don’t ever actually physically have copies, which makes it impossible to FOIA anything they have,” says Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Task Force.

So we can’t get the data or reports. And when we e-mailed PHMSA this specific question:

"Enbridge says the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac is safe and in good operating condition. Based on the information PHMSA has, does the agency agree with this assessment?"

We simply get a pat response like this:

“Safety is a top priority at PHMSA.”

Recent calls to State Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office were not returned, so it’s difficult to know what exactly the state can see today, and whether they know anything about what they're looking at.

And while Enbridge says they’re working on providing the public with summary information from their recent inspections, there’s no timeline as to when we’ll see that data.

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