Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon McCarty, a marine science technician assigned to Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., conducts a waterside investigation of a mineral oil spill while Matt Kleitch, an analyst for the state of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, looks for possible impacted wildlife on the Straits of Mackinac April 5, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Pamela Manns)

Great Lakes Crews Try to Prepare, Prevent in ‘Worst Absolute Place for an Oil Disaster’

An anchor strike in a Great Lakes pipeline has served as a teachable moment and a warning about cooperation needed between agencies and industry to prevent or respond to a potentially disastrous burst pipeline in a particularly sensitive location between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, witnesses said at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee field hearing.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) presided over the Traverse City, Mich., hearing Monday, which focused on the risk of a pipeline break and emergency preparedness measures with specific concerns about a 65-year-old pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5 has stoked many safety concerns, especially after sustaining damage from years of anchor strikes and a recent anchor drag that inflicted three dents.

“We know that an oil spill in the Great Lakes would be absolutely catastrophic for our environment and for our economy,” Peters said. “…If you’re looking for the worst absolute place for an oil disaster to occur, it would be the Straights of Mackinac.”

He noted a Line 5 break could “reach hundreds of miles of shoreline in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario” and cost Michigan at least $2 billion. “I certainly don’t want to wait until the next disaster to consider what we could have done to prevent it,” the senator added.

The Coast Guard has “broad authorities that reside in a variety of statutes and we complement these with well-established interagency and industry relationships to provide rapid and effective response in the event of a release or spill in the marine environment,” said Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan, Ninth District commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, adding that under the Canada/United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan “the U.S. and Canadian coast guards have established a coordinated system for response preparation and planning in the contiguous waters along shared marine borders.”

Nunan assured those at the hearing that “as a learning organization, the Coast Guard couples lessons learned from real-world responses with research and development to apply the latest technology and best practices to marine spill response efforts.”

“As part of a multi-year Coast Guard research and development project, centered in the Straits, we recently issued our first ever federal on-scene coordinator’s guide to oil and ice, which provides responders the best available options for addressing oil spills in winter conditions,” she said. “Through further research and development along with interagency and industry partnerships, we are addressing oil spill research needs unique to the Great Lakes to improve response capability throughout the region.”

Through administration of the Oil Spill Removal Organization classification program, the Coast Guard “provides clear standards for OSROs to follow as they work together to foster a robust network of marine environmental response providers in each captain of the port zone” and also maintains an inventory of oil spill response equipment available for deployment in the region “to act promptly to contain the spill.”

Nunan said the April spill of dielectric fluid from utility lines in the Straits of Mackinac ultimately showed “a fine example of federal, tribal, state, local, and industry cooperation through both advance planning and execution to respond to an environmental threat.”

“Through an established network of partners across all spectrums of both the public and private sectors, the Coast Guard continues to explore and develop optimal response and mitigation methods for oil spill discharges and hazardous material releases,” she said.

Calling an anchor strike that could break open a pipeline a “nightmare scenario,” Peters asked about authorities to compel Enbridge energy to take action in a pipeline crisis.

Howard “Skip” Elliot, administrator of the Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said there are “several levels… that we can follow from emergency order authority to corrective action orders to safety orders, so we have several means at our disposal that allow us to work with the operator, including shutdown if warranted.”

The April anchor strike happened on the first of the month; Elliot said Enbridge “first became aware of impact or suspected impact to their pipe” on April 3.

“They took the steps of, at that point, shutting down the pipeline and doing some internal control room tests to see if there were any anomalies that indicated that because of the anchor strikes there were any integrity issues with the pipeline,” he said. “Subsequent, they started the pipeline back up and that was for a good reason, one, then they did a pressure test of the line followed by some fairly sophisticated inline inspection capability.”

It took “several days after our first notification on the 3rd” to get unified command on site, Elliot said.

Elliot said he believes current spill plans in place “would provide adequate coverage” in responding — “depending on the circumstances.”

Nunan told Peters that “a spill that you’re describing is the exact worst-case scenario that we have been trying to prevent.”

“We’ve been working to prepare in case it happens and so it would not catch us unprepared, because that is what we have been very much working on both from full-scale exercises; before that, tabletop exercises making sure that we have the right equipment in place, the right partnerships in place,” she said. “And it’s not to say that we’re not going to continue to learn. We’re going to continue to evolve in technologies and procedures and partnerships. But our 50-member area committee, that is our primary worst-case scenario. So I feel that that’s what we’ve been preparing for in case that happens. And I think the preventative measures will hopefully be able to prevent such a spill.”

Scott Lundgren, emergency response division chief in the Office of Response and Restoration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, acknowledged that weather conditions in the strait including high winds and waves can make both navigation and spill cleanup challenging.

“While many response tactics and much of the response knowledge on injury has been developed from saltwater spills, and a lot of that may be directly transferrable or adaptable to fresh, research is certainly prudent to ensure a deeper understanding …of the changes resulting from the water density, salinity, the major ecosystem differences including the microorganisms that are major degraders,” Lundgren said. “So that, plus, the additional concern pertaining to water resources warrants greater understanding and that’s certainly an area of interest for us.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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