Michigan, Michigan Republicans — July 22, 2015 at 10:59 am

Schuette talk, little action on pipeline safety in the Great Lakes


Round Island Lighthouse in the Straits of Mackinac, photo by Anne C. Savage

The aspiring but unannounced 2018 gubernatorial candidate Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appointed a Task Force to address the increasing public concern about Line 5, Enbridge’s pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. That was last year. Since then new voices and new media outlets have begun asking hard questions about a pipeline that is in the twilight of its years and has been either maintained or not, who knows, by the same company that kept patching rather than replacing the pipeline that ruptured and befouled the Kalamazoo River and adjacent lands in 2010. The cleanup is expected to continue for up to five more years.

On behalf of the people of Michigan Schuette, accepted a 75 million dollar settlement with Enbridge regarding the spill, an amount that is hardly punitive and may be inadequate to correct the ongoing pipeline situation. Regional director of the National Wildlife Federation, Great Lakes Region, Mike Shriberg sent the following response related to the settlement:

The jury is still out on whether the $75 million settlement announced today will be enough to fulfill Enbridge Energy’s responsibility to clean up after the worst inland oil disaster in U.S. history—one that dumped more than 800,000 gallons into Michigan waterways, sickening people, killing fish and wildlife, and harming Michigan’s economy.

It’s promising that this money is going into habitat protection and restoration projects with direct benefits to Michigan’s wildlife and recreational economy. What’s less clear is whether the amount of funding is enough to achieve long-term restoration goals for the river as well as to serve as a sufficient penalty for the economic, social and ecological damages caused.

The state of Michigan has not explained the basis for the terms in the settlement, including how it arrived at the $75 million Enbridge Energy is obligated to pay and the claim that Enbridge Energy will be able to clean up the remaining oil contamination within five years.

Considering the federal government has not released its final damage assessment of the Enbridge Energy oil spill disaster, it’s fair to question whether the Michigan settlement will pay for all of the restoration work that is needed.

Time will tell if the settlement with Enbridge Energy will be sufficient to clean up after one of the state’s most calamitous environmental disasters—and whether it is strong enough to deter.

And like our current governor, Rick Snyder, Schuette has beamed broadly in his announcement that his Task Force that studied the issues related to Line 5 in the Straits has come through and “Michigan is safer now because of these recommendations.”

No, Michigan and its WATER are not now or in the future safer because of recommendations — unless there is action. But so far the real action, make that ACTION, that Schuette will take is to seek a ban on the transport of “heavy crude” through Line 5, even though Enbridge had no plans to transport heavy crude, only the light crude and liquid natural gas that it is now sending at the rate of 500,000 barrels/day.

This is the same kind of Lansing “get tough” muscle flexing we saw when it was announced that Aramark would pay a $98,000 fine for infractions only to have the fine rescinded a couple of months later.

In other words, there is no real enforcement going on because an illusion of enforcement works just as
well as the real thing with no troublesome consequences. The tough talk keeps the voters from leaving their BarcaLoungers and taking to the streets to make noise. So be prepared to drink “the illusion of clean water” when the spill at the Straits occurs.

Additional recommendations, all of which could have been made after the very first meeting of the Task Force, include conducting an independent analysis, developing alternate pipeline routes, and requiring Enbridge to carry more disaster liability insurance, more than the $100 million it carries now.

Calling for an independent analysis of the line’s risk is a stalling technique and redundant inasmuch as University of Michigan researchers have already provided a risk assessment and its conclusions were so troubling that it fanned the public’s concerns about the condition of Line 5. And it’s worth noting that the “independent analysis” is the first cousin of the Task Force in terms of the bureaucratic management of problem solving. If the worst event occurs in the interim, the excuse will be prefaced thus: “As you know, we were in the process … but this happened before the full report was in or could be acted upon, etc.” Or worse, the now much dreaded cliche’ “No one could have known…”

The thing is that we do know. This is a time to be proactive, but that is not likely when Schuette and Wyant of the Department of Environmental Quality have warmed to the Task Force recommendation that Enbridge provide more insurance coverage against pipeline mishaps.

In other words, disaster response rather than disaster prevention defines Michigan’s current relationship with Big Business.