By John Masson
A legal analysis released today, produced with the help of Michigan Law students in the wake of one of the largest oil spills in Midwest history, finds significant gaps in federal and state laws designed to protect the Great Lakes and the communities that surround them.
The report, "After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region," was written by Michigan Law lecturer and National Wildlife Federation water resources attorney Sara Gosman, with the assistance of second-year law students from Michigan's Environmental Law & Policy Program. Its release nearly coincides with the second anniversary of the spill near Marshall, Mich., which sent approximately a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries and contaminated 30 miles of a river that flows into Lake Michigan.
Michigan Law students working with Gosman on the report were 2Ls Lesley MacGregor, Gabe Tabak, and Jamie Woolard. The project was funded with a grant from the National Sea Grant Law Center and the C.S. Mott Foundation, and was conducted under the auspices of the Law School's Environmental Law & Policy Program. One of the goals of the project was to give Michigan Law students practical experience researching a critical environmental issue in the Great Lakes region.
"The project was a great opportunity to learn about the combination of energy policy and environmental policy that drives pipeline safety laws," Tabak said. "Hopefully the report will increase awareness of the current regulatory system and play a small role in helping to improve it."
Among the key findings: the federal government doesn't review the long-term risks of pipeline routing decisions, a federal program requiring pipeline operators to assess the condition of existing pipelines protects only some of the region's environmentally sensitive areas, and the responsibility for reviewing spill contingency plans may be inadequate because review responsibility is divided between federal agencies.
"One of the things that came out of the study that was most surprising to me was that there's no federal oversight of the routing of oil pipelines, unlike natural gas pipelines," Gosman said. "So we looked at the Great Lakes states" to see whether the states tried to provide that oversight.
Three states in the region—Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois—had laws on their books, Gosman and the students found. But the Michigan law was weak.
"Minnesota has a very interesting set of requirements that allows citizens to suggest a route," Gosman said. Illinois also has a strong system, she said.
That particular discovery highlighted another key finding in the study, Gosman said: Most states in the Great Lakes region have done little to improve pipeline safety, even in areas where they have the authority to do so.
The analysis recommended several policy changes at the state and federal level designed to help regulators do a better job protecting a region that contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water. (Although the work was conducted under the Law School's Environmental Law & Policy Program, the findings and policy recommendations are the authors'.)
Among the policy recommendations: First, laws governing pipelines should take into account the Great Lakes basin as a whole, paying particular attention to all of its environmentally sensitive areas. Second, information about pipelines should be much more available to the public, while protecting national security interests. And third, states should take a more aggressive role in regulating the intrastate pipelines that fall within their jurisdictions, at the same time as they help the federal government oversee pipelines that run between states.
"Oil pipelines may be out of sight, but that doesn't mean the risks of oil pipelines should be out of mind," Gosman said. "The best way to mind these risks is to ensure that federal and state law is fully protective of the environment and the communities that depend on it."
Read more about the report, or download a PDF of the complete report.
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