Oil and water did not mix at a public meeting July 6 at Holt High School, where a panel commissioned by the state laid out a report assessing the risk of an oil and gas pipeline running at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.
The uneasy encounter between a pedantic, Power-Point-presenting panel of engineers and about 150 members of the public, many of whom were skeptical of the panel’s findings and impatient to shut down the pipeline, took place under the watchful eyes of half-a-dozen coun ty sheriff ’s deputies and state cops.
The engineers laid out a controversial risk analysis of Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries over 23 million barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids daily through the straits. Built in 1953, Line 5 runs 645 miles, from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.
In June, Attorney General Bill Schuette called for a plan to close Line 5.
The pipeline panel concluded that there is about a one in 60 chance a spill will occur some time in the next 35 years.
Protesters outside the school and members of the public at the meeting questioned the report, prepared by the Canadian consulting firm Dynamic Risk, and called for the pipeline to be closed immediately.
David Holtz, coordinator of Oil and Water Don’t Mix, a coalition fighting the pipeline, said the study is “deeply flawed.”
“It could have been written by Enbridge,” Holtz said. “It downplays the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes and dramatically underestimates the impact of such a spill.”
Enbridge put $3.5 million in a state escrow fund to finance the study.
He said Enbridge “got what they paid for,” Holtz said. “There should not be oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, period.”
The panel concluded that the most likely cause of a spill would be a stray anchor snagging one or both of the two 20-inch-diameter pipelines.
Jim Mihell, the panel’s principal investigator, said there is no evidence from inspection data dating back to the 1990s that the pipe is corroding, but he acknowledged that the data came from Enbridge’s own inspection records.
When Mihell said he “can’t imagine” why Enbridge would falsify records, there was a general sigh in the auditorium. One lady walked out, saying, “I don’t believe this.”
At a rally before the meeting, several speakers complained of business ties between panel members and Enbridge. Later that night, panel member Patrick Vieth answered an audience member who questioned the engineers’ impartiality.
“This panel has worked for all pipeline operators out there, including Enbridge,” he said. “That’s a fact. That’s how the expertise gets into the analysis.”
Patience in the audience grew thin after two hours of delving into physics of vortex-induced vibration and other possible threats to the pipeline. When a state staffer announced that the presentation would go on for another half hour or so, Roger Gauthier, an anti-pipeline audience member, shouted at the panel. “You’re trying to wear us down,” he said. “Take questions now.”
Thomas Gilbin, a volunteer for the Michigan Sierra Club’s legislative committee, asked why terrorism or sabotage wasn’t included in the analysis.
“You have obviously given a lot of thought to the principal threat of perhaps something happening here today,” Gilbin said, pointedly. Two county sheriff ’s cars and a state police car were parked on the sidewalk outside the high school door. “You have given no weight to that issue for a pipeline that carries millions of gallons of oil under our straits.”
Another audience member brought up Enbridge’s track record, including a series of catastrophic missteps that led to a spill of over 20,000 barrels of heavy crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall in 2010.
Mihell said the spill was so bad because Enbridge did not recognize a rupture in the pipeline for 17 hours and tried to restart it several times, resulting in “the costliest on-shore oil spill in U.S. history.” He explained that the alarm was disregarded because it was confused with “column separation,” a routine break in pressure that Mihell said can’t occur under the low-lying Straits of Mackinac.
A man in the audience shouted, “No.” “Yes, yes,” Mihell said, surprised by the relentless blowback from the audience.
Two and a half hours into the evening, Mihell paused while answering a question.
“I get the sense that people feel we may be trying to lowball or put sugar on the risk assessment,” he said.
Instantly, about half the audience cried, “Yeah!” Mihell pleaded that the panel was tasked only to analyze the risk, not to recommend policy. He said it’s up to the state to determine whether the one-in-60 risk is acceptable.
“If that’s what you truly feel, we’re not doing a good job,” Mihell said. “What we’re talking about is some very significant consequences if you get a big release of oil in the straits.”
The gulf between the dispassionate, industry-driven calculations on the stage and the passion for the Great Lakes in the audience was striking. There was a general frustration that the panel dealt only with the dollars and cents impact of a potential spill.
One audience member asked why the panel didn’t assess potential loss of wildlife, habitat and other environmental damage.
“There are some methods that can handle that, but they are post-spill,” panel member Jack Ruitenbeek said, meaning you wait until a spill happens and then count the dead birds and animals and measure habitat loss.
Some forms of damage, Ruitenbeek admitted, were “impossible to monetize.”
Public Comment on Enbridge Line 5
Pipeline 8 a.m. Monday, July 24 Holt High School Or submit comments until Aug. 4 on Michigan Petroleum Pipelines website www. mipetroleumpipelines.com