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Officials from Enbridge Energy Partners insisted on the structural safety of its 64-year-old pipelines that pass under the Straits of Mackinac even though a company-commissioned study found that the lines' protective coating has deteriorated in some areas.
"I believe this pipeline is in as good of condition as it was on the day it was installed," Enbridge's director of integrity programs Kurt Baraniecki said at a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board meeting in Lansing, Michigan on Monday.
But the 250 protestors who showed up to the meeting responded to the comments with "derisive howls and laughter," the Detroit Free Press reported.
The meeting was centered around the Canadian oil transport company's heavily contested Enbridge Line 5 that lies just west of the Mackinac Bridge and carries roughly 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid natural gas each day.
Built in 1953, the 645-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline runs from Superior, Wisconsin, across Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas before terminating in Ontario, Canada. As it travels under the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Line 5 splits into twin 20-inch-diameter, parallel pipelines.
Environmentalists fear that a potential rupture of oil lines that run through the heart of the Great Lakes, which contains 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water, would be an ecological disaster.
The straits' strong currents reverse direction every few days and a spill would quickly contaminate shoreline communities miles away, a University of Michigan study commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation found.
Not only that, opponents cite Enbridge's numerous and well-documented spills. The company was responsible for more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, totaling 6.8 million gallons of spilled oil. Most notoriously in 2010, an Enbridge line spilled more than 800,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan—creating the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
A protestor named Fred Harrington and his 8-year-old grandson Riley Sargent of Petoskey showed up to the meeting covered in brown cake batter to make a point.
"We wanted show you what the birds will look like, what the fish will look like, what the shoreline will look like if that pipeline breaks," Harrington said at the meeting. "If we continue to let it run and run and run year after year, it will break."
Last September, Enbridge filed a work plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifying 18 "holidays" on Line 5—an oil and gas industry term that refers to areas on a pipeline where anti-corrosive coating is missing
But Baraniecki, the company's integrity programs director, said at the meeting that the report used imprecise language.
As the Detroit Free Press reported:
What was actually identified on the underwater pipes were 18 locations where an outer, glass-fiber coating has come off that doesn't provide corrosion protection, he said.
Referring to those spots as holidays, exposed areas of pipe, in the company's Biota Investigation Work Plan "was incorrect," he said.
"The consultants had generalized this," Baraniecki said. "These were locations we have identified that could potentially have coating holidays."
But opponents are calling foul on the oil company's claims.
"Enbridge began by saying Line 5 is as good as the day it was constructed 64 years ago. Then they went on to admit the protective coatings are peeling off while saying it really doesn't matter," David Holtz, executive committee chair of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, told EcoWatch.
"This is the same company that claimed their pipeline 6B near Marshall Michigan was safe just weeks before it ruptured more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River," Holtz continued.
Environmental advocates are also calling on Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette to decommission the line.
"Oil pipelines don't belong in the Great Lakes and the governor needs to begin the process now to decommission Line 5 before there's a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes," Holtz said.
The Pipeline Safety Advisory Board is expecting reports from two independent contractors by June. The contractors will assess worst-case-scenarios from a Straits pipeline leak and analyze safer alternatives to transport oil and gas around the Great Lakes.
Holtz said that the Sierra Club plans to continue citizen pressure on Gov. Snyder and AG Schuette as the state prepares for public comment on the reports.