Imagine an oil slick quickly growing through the Straits of Mackinac from a rupture of the 62-year-old, twin pipelines known as Line 5 traversing the bottom of where Lakes Michigan and Huron connect.
Now imagine oil spill response boats from the pipeline operator and U.S. Coast Guard moored at the docks, taking no action for hours, or even a day or more as the slick mixes and spreads in the often turbulent waves.
That scenario is a real possibility if a Line 5 spill were to occur in bad weather, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the pipeline owner’s contracted spill responder.
Under high wave conditions, crucial offshore spill containment response might have to be put off for hours, or even days because of unsafe boating conditions, the responders say. That would delay the deployment of spill-containing boom, or the use of skimmers to remove oil from the water’s surface. And that would allow the ecological calamity to spread.
And those conditions aren’t infrequent in the Straits of Mackinac. Weather records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory indicate that from 2010 through 2014, the straits area averaged wave heights of 3 to 4 feet about 24 days per year — as an entire day’s average. Waves exceeded 4 feet as an entire day’s average 8 days of the year.
A new, weather-data-gathering buoy deployed in the Straits of Mackinac this fall by Enbridge, which owns and operates Line 5, in conjunction with Michigan Technological University showed that “significant wave height” — the average of the highest waves — exceeded 5 feet in all or a portion of eight days during October. And that was during a “relatively mild” weather month, said Guy Meadows, director of Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center.
“November is typically the big month for really severe waves,” he said. The buoy was removed from the water for winter storage last month, he said.
Charles Usher is president of Detroit-based Marine Pollution Control, a company contracted by Enbridge to respond in the event of an oil spill on the Great Lakes from the company’s pipelines. High seas could impede, if not halt, a response out on the lake with boats, he said.
“If waves get up to enough that people are going to be bouncing around really dangerously, that’s a possibility, sure,” he said. “But that’s not unlike any other spill in any other part of the world. Weather’s always going to be a factor. In good conditions, it’s going to facilitate the cleanup. And in rough conditions, it’s going to hamper it.”
It’s not a purely hypothetical possibility. Marine Pollution Control was called to respond to a 110-foot dredging barge that sank in Lake Huron about 6 miles north of the St. Clair River mouth near Port Huron in July 2012. There was concern regarding the potential for about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel to leak from the barge. But Marine Pollution Control had to halt recovery activity because of weather conditions, Usher said.
“Everything was fine when the seas were decent,” he said. “But when the winds started whipping up, and the seas started getting up to 2, 3 feet or more, it started getting rough. There was a couple of times there when we had to shut things down in consultation with the Coast Guard. And that was in the summer.”
Usher said he also would not send his spill recovery boats out onto the Straits of Mackinac at night.
“You cannot operate at night offshore,” he said. “It’s not too safe to be trying to conduct marine operations at night.”
Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes responded to questions from the Free Press with an e-mailed statement.
“It is important to point out that this pipeline has never had an issue during all of its years of operations,” he stated.
“We would work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and the entire Unified Command to ensure appropriate resources were being deployed safely and that response objectives were being met,” Barnes stated, adding the company would also work with NOAA to monitor and predict weather throughout any spill response.
“Enbridge and its multiple oil spill response organizations maintain equipment to handle diverse weather conditions and would deploy the appropriate resources to respond to the event.”
A 2001 guide to marine oil spill response planning, prepared by the American Petroleum Institute, NOAA, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, points out the crucial nature of the need to respond quickly to a marine oil spill.
“During the first 24 to 48 hours of open water exposure, most oil spills become difficult to recover, burn, or chemically disperse,” a portion of the guide states.
“Evaporation accelerates as oil spreads and thins, increasing its density, viscosity and tendency to emulsify; emulsification can produce oily fluids of greater volume and viscosity than the original spill; and decreasing slick thickness makes removing oil increasingly difficult.”
Wave conditions not only make it difficult for boats to respond, but it can have a mixing effect on a floating substance, Anderson said.
“Something that would normally form a scum or a slick will instead mix down into the water column,” he said.
A 2014 study by David Schwab, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Water Center, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation, modeled how an oil spill from Line 5 would react in the Straits of Mackinac’s complex currents. The spill scenarios show that, depending on water current directions, a spill could be transported eastward into Lake Huron, westward into Lake Michigan and move back and forth through the Straits several times. Shoreline areas most impacted would be Mackinac Island, Bois Blanc Island and the Lake Huron shoreline east of Mackinaw City. Contamination could spread as far as Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to Rogers City in Lake Huron, the study found.
“The currents up there move 1 to 2 miles per hour,” Schwab said. “I think it would be difficult to contain a spill in that area in the best conditions.”
Gov. Rick Snyder in September created the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, following the recommendations of a task force on pipeline safety issued earlier this year. The board is reviewing the task force’s recommendations on Line 5’s future in the Straits of Mackinac that call for a third-party review of the pipelines that includes a risk analysis and look at possible alternatives, as well as a review of Enbridge’s financial assurances in the event of a spill.
David Holtz, chairman of the nonprofit Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, renewed his call to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.
“It definitely reduces the meaningfulness of preparing for a rapid response to an oil spill when at least a quarter of the year, you’re not going to be able to go out in boats and actually contain the spill,” he said.