TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) —
Michigan's attorney general and chief environmental regulator have asked the
company that owns two oil pipelines stretched beneath an ecologically
sensitive area of the Great Lakes for evidence that the 61-year-old lines
are properly maintained and in good condition.
Attorney General Bill Schuette and
Dan Wyant, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, posed
a lengthy series of questions and requested stacks of documentation in a
letter sent Tuesday to Enbridge Inc. and made public Wednesday. They said
the pipelines, which run beneath the Straits of Mackinac — the waterway
linking Lakes Huron and Michigan — pose a unique safety risk.
"Because of where they are, any
failure will have exceptional, indeed catastrophic effects," their letter
said. "And because the magnitude of the resulting harm is so great, there is
no margin for error. It is imperative we pursue a proactive, comprehensive
approach to ensure this risk is minimized, and work together to prevent
tragedy before it strikes."
Larry Springer, a spokesman for
Enbridge, said Wednesday that officials with the Canadian company based in
Calgary, Alberta, had met with Schuette in Lansing on April 10 and had
"shared informally" much of the information sought in the letter. Enbridge
will review the letter and "determine if there is any further information
that we can provide concerning the safe operations" of the pipelines, which
Springer said were "rigorously maintained beyond regulatory requirements."
The pipelines transport "petroleum
products that are refined into propane, gasoline, and diesel fuels that are
vital to all who live and work in Michigan communities," he said.
Schuette and Wyant joined a rising
tide of criticism about the Straits of Mackinac pipelines that began after
the rupture of another Enbridge line in 2010 that spilled more than 843,000
gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River and a tributary creek in
southwestern Michigan. The cleanup is mostly complete, although Enbridge is
still working to remove oil from the river bottom.
The letter added bipartisan flavor
to the official expressions of concern. Schuette is a Republican and Wyant
is an appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. In December, three
Democratic U.S. senators — Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and
Richard Durbin of Illinois — sent a letter to the U.S. Pipeline and
Hazardous Materials Safety Administration about the Mackinac lines in
"This demonstrates once more that
the Great Lakes are not a partisan issue," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of
the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. "It's gratifying to
see the state of Michigan take the lead in seeking this information because
they're the ones that are going to pay the most if there's an oil spill."
A community meeting in March hosted
by Mackinac County's planning commissioner drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Last summer, hundreds of activists attended a protest rally.
The two 20-inch pipes are part of
Enbridge's 1,900-mile Lakehead network, which originates in North Dakota
near the Canadian border. A segment known as Line 5 slices through northern
Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula before ducking beneath the Straits
of Mackinac and winding up in Sarnia, Ontario. It carries nearly 23 million
gallons of oil daily.
The single-walled underwater pipes
extend more than 3½ miles beneath the straits. They were laid in 1953 and
have never been replaced, Schuette and Wyant said. They added that in the
event of a spill, the area's strong currents would quickly spread oil into
Lakes Michigan and Huron, doing "grave environmental and economic harm."
Popular with tourists, the straits
area features the Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan's lower and upper
peninsulas and Mackinac Island, a resort destination famed for its
horse-drawn carriages and fudge shops.
"Efforts to contain and clean up
leaks in this area would be extraordinarily difficult, especially if they
occurred in winter or other severe weather conditions that commonly occur at
the straits," Schuette and Wyant said, noting that the waterway's surface
was still solid after this year's deep freeze.
Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout
said the officials were not requesting specific actions such as replacing
the pipelines, as some environmentalists have demanded.
"We're not ready to make that
determination until we see their response to our request for information,"
Among the requested paperwork were
documents about the lines' construction, modification, estimated "useful
life" and potential replacement. The officials also asked about current and
potential uses for the lines, including whether they will ever carry
"diluted bitumen" oil from Canada's tar sands region, the heavy crude that
spilled into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge says only light crude presently
moves through the straits lines.
Schuette and Wyant also asked for
documentation from inspections of the lines and information on how Enbridge
deals with potential problems, including what conditions might lead to a
shutdown until repairs are made. They requested data on any leaks that have
occurred and how they are detected and the amount of oil that could be
released before an automatic shut-off valve system is activated.
They also requested information
about the company's plans for dealing with spills or leaks from the lines
and documentation showing that Enbridge is complying with a pipeline
easement granted by the state.