By John Masson
When an aging oil pipeline began leaking into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River two summers ago, it was more than 12 hours before anyone even noticed.
And it wasn't Enbridge Energy's pipeline leak detectors that picked up the problem—it was nearby homeowners, who noticed the stink of oil. Before the leak near Marshall, Mich., was stopped, nearly a million gallons of crude oil were flowing down the river toward Lake Michigan.
The notification shortcoming is only one of the problems facing America's pipelines, according to a panel of speakers assembled by Michigan Law's Environmental Law & Policy Program. The panel discussion, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region," focused on some of the issues attendant on inland pipelines and drew a standing-room-only crowd to a Michigan Law classroom this month.
Panelists included Nick Schroeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center; Polly Synk, a 2001 Michigan Law grad and assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan; and Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust.
The talk was moderated by Michigan Law Adjunct Professor Sara Gosman, who also serves as a water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Together with Michigan Law students, Prof. Gosman is researching the legal framework governing oil and gas development and the extent to which laws protect water resources in the Great Lakes region.
One aspect of the project, which is co-sponsored by Michigan Law and NWF and funded by the National Sea Grant Law Center, is oil pipeline safety. Prof. Gosman and her students will issue a report within a few weeks that will summarize their research and provide policy recommendations.
The Enbridge disaster, the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history, highlighted several problems related to inland pipelines, Weimer said.
First, many of them were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are showing their age. And their routes were chosen in an era well before most environmental laws took effect, which means that many run straight through environmentally delicate areas.
Weimer has a thorough understanding of that particular phenomenon: A judge essentially created his organization in 2003 by ordering that $4 million in criminal fines levied in the wake of the Olympic Pipeline explosion be used to establish a safety trust. The 1999 explosion killed three youths and happened, Weimer said, after gasoline from the pipeline leaked into a salmon stream in the state of Washington and blew up.
And while a series of damaging and often deadly pipeline accidents followed over the next several years, Weimer extended blame for problems with pipelines to all of us. Among other issues: The lack of a national energy policy means the free market helps set policy to maximize pipeline profits, not safety; the lack of a national climate change strategy means consumption continues relatively unabated; and the public's appetite for low-priced energy encourages shortsighted action.
So when something like the 2010 Enbridge spill happens, it's important to be ready. Synk said at the height of the response more than 2,000 workers were cleaning up the spill, deploying 30 miles of containment boom and dealing with a difficult, riverine environment. For one thing, she said, in a river spill clean-up crews have two shorelines to contend with—one on either side of the river.
"The state expects to be working on this…for some time," Synk said. Even so, she said, there comes a point where continuing clean-up efforts actually causes more damage to the environment than leaving things as they are.
Which reinforces the importance of preventing mishaps in the first place—a goal made more difficult, according to Schroeck, because of split responsibilities for permitting, too few inspectors, and inadequate enforcement of existing regulations.
Even acquiring information about environmental issues is a challenge, he said. A state agency wanted to charge him $6,000, he said, to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request about the number and types of species damaged by the Enbridge spill.
"This stuff should be in the public" domain, he said.
For Gosman, interest in events like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the proposed Keystone Pipeline, and the recent panel discussion of the Enbridge spill mean more people are paying attention to the state of our environment and our waterways than ever before.
"While pipelines are buried out of sight, the impacts of a spill are clearly not out of people's thoughts," Gosman said. "It takes only one large spill, like the one in Marshall, to remind us of the risks of pipelines and the need for careful oversight. And as domestic production of oil and gas increases, we'll need to find a way to balance our need for energy with the potential for significant environmental harm."
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