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Line 5 agreement shows some potential shortcomings

• Dec 18, 2017 at 2:00 PM

With the past year's revelations of questionable conditions along the Line 5 oil/gas pipeline's Straits of Mackinac segment, action by state officials to compel some safety efforts on pipeline owner Enbridge's part would seem in order.

However, we see some potential shortcomings in a recently signed state agreement with Enbridge, one which Gov. Rick Snyder's office said would provide safeguards for Michigan waters as the state works toward a final decision on the 1950s-vintage pipeline's future. In particular, we're concerned that the agreement looks to set a path for the pipeline's future — involving tunneled piping beneath the Straits — before the public has had a full opportunity for input on all of the identified alternatives.

Line 5 runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, via Michigan, with an underwater crossing at the Straits along the way.

Among the new agreement's stipulations are for Enbridge to:

— Replace the portion of Line 5 that crosses beneath the St. Clair River (which forms part of the boundary between southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario) with a new pipe in a tunnel under the river.

— Undertake a study, in conjunction with the state, on the placement of a new pipeline or the existing dual pipelines in a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The state's alternative analysis identified tunneling as an alternative to the current pipelines. This study will examine several possible techniques and allow a much more detailed examination on the technical feasibility of such a tunnel.

— Temporarily shut down operation of Line 5 in the Straits during periods of sustained adverse weather conditions, because those conditions do not allow effective response to potential oil spills.

— Implement technologies that improve the safety of Line 5 in the Straits by allowing faster detection and a more immediate response in the event of a spill.

— Implement measures to mitigate a potential vessel anchor strike on Line 5 beneath the Straits. A vessel anchor strike was identified in the final alternatives analysis as one of the most serious threats to Line 5 safety in the Straits.

— In partnership with the state, implement additional measures to minimize the likelihood of an oil spill at every Line 5 water crossing in Michigan.

— Increase transparency by providing the opportunity for the state to fully participate in each of the evaluations required under the agreement; providing all information requested by the state about the operation of Line 5 in Michigan; and meeting regularly with the state to assess and discuss any changes to the pipeline's operation.

Among these provisions, we see some measures which potentially could enhance the line's safety standing from what would otherwise exist. However, we also see some details remaining unresolved, such as the gaps in protective coating recently revealed to exist at a majority of the 48 anchor points inspected so far this year by Enbridge along the Straits span. With more such points remaining to be inspected — there are 128 in all — we share a concern recently noted by a Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council staff member about the agreement's lack of attention to the coating deficiencies recently found and how to address them.

We're also concerned about the agreement setting what looks to be a default path toward a tunneled pipeline beneath the Straits, especially amid other state exploration of options for the pipeline's future. An independent consultant enlisted by the state recently analyzed six potential alternatives which could be pursued for the Straits section of Line 5 — ranging from maintaining the tandem pipeline segment in its current form to replacing the existing structures with a trenched or tunneled line to constructing one or more new pipelines that avoid open Great Lakes water routing and then decommissioning the Straits section.

Public input opportunities concerning the various options are happening this month, with officials also in discussions toward another study phase — involving risk analysis — for the Line 5 options.

We've previously called for Enbridge to begin working in the direction of decommissioning Line 5, given the enormity of the environmental catastrophe that would result from petroleum spillage along the Straits section and the far-reaching harm to the region's tourism and recreation economy that would accompany it. While pipelines offer some safety and cost advantages compared to other oil transport methods, we have deep-seated reservations about their fit in Great Lakes waters.

Before concluding that a tunneled pipeline would be a reasonable way to mitigate these risks, we would want to see further risk-analysis details, and would urge the state to carefully explore those before starting movement toward that specific option.

In charting a path for Line 5's future, we'd also hope state officials would consider the public feedback that emerges from the ongoing comment processes associated with the study — input opportunities that weren't in place for the recent agreement's formulation.

PETOSKEY NEWS-REVIEW (AP)

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