An oil and gas pipeline expert testifying in a permitting case involving Enbridge’s Line 5 says state energy staffers are downplaying the risk of a potentially catastrophic explosion within a proposed tunnel that would carry oil and propane beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Richard Kuprewicz, the president of Washington-based Accufacts Inc. who has been retained by Indigenous tribes and environmental law firms, provided formal testimony on behalf of Bay Mills Indian Community last month in a permitting case before the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC).
Kuprewicz disagrees with MPSC staff and other consultants who have said the risk of Line 5 products entering the Great Lakes would be “negligible and unquantifiably low” if housed within the proposed tunnel. The tunnel project, first negotiated under former Gov. Rick Snyder, has been held up by supporters as a fail-safe alternative to Line 5 that currently sits exposed along the lakebed.
“From an engineering standpoint, there is a potential for a release into the Straits from the tunnel by way of a catastrophic explosion,” Kuprewicz said in written testimony filed on Dec. 14. “While a risk of release in this manner may be considered low, it is not negligible and, in my opinion, should not be downplayed in such a way by the (MPSC) Staff.”
MPSC staff have testified that a tunnel would virtually eliminate the risk of an oil and gas release into the Great Lakes by sheltering the pipeline from anchor strikes and providing an additional layer of protection in the event of a pipeline spill.
Kuprewicz countered: “This testimony fails to recognize that both propane and crude oil are highly hazardous and volatile substances and there is always a risk of explosion when handling these substances. When transporting these substances through a pipeline enclosed in a tunnel, the risk of an explosion is enhanced which in turn enhances the probability that the secondary containment vessel will fail.”
Various electrical equipment operating in the tunnel, such as sump pumps, or even static electricity could cause an ignition within the tunnel, he said.
“It is important to note that crude oil, and especially propane, in a confined space can generate a tremendous amount of pressure, especially upon detonation. … A release in this unique environment carries the risk of both loss of human life and the release of crude oil and propane into the Great Lakes as an explosion in such a confined structure will most likely violate the tunnel’s secondary containment intent,” Kuprewicz wrote.
Kuprewicz is a chemical engineer with nearly 50 years of experience in the oil and gas industry. He previously served for more than 15 years as a member of the federal Technical Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Standards Committee, which advises the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2017, Pipeline & Gas Journal called Kuprewicz “the man who knew too much about pipeline safety.”
Enbridges seeks to strike testimony
Enbridge is attempting to strike Kuprewicz’s testimony from the case record, arguing that Bay Mills should have raised the issue earlier in the permitting process.
Enbridge filed an application with the MPSC in April 2020 seeking permission to build a replacement pipeline within the tunnel. The MPSC permitting process is occurring amid a lawsuit by Attorney General Dana Nessel that seeks to decommission the pipeline. Enbridge’s initial permit application also came roughly seven months before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked the company’s easement to operate in the Straits, which Enbridge has defied and challenged.
“There is no legitimate reason why this new issue could not have been raised in Bay Mills Indian Community’s direct case, instead of for the first time in Mr. Kuprewicz’s rebuttal testimony,” Enbridge responded on Dec. 21. “Now allowing this testimony in rebuttal causes prejudice and potential delay and, therefore, it should be stricken.”
Enbridge Spokesperson Ryan Duffy highlighted MPSC staff’s prior support for the tunnel project as a safer alternative to the existing pipeline and that it “serves a public need.”
“Based on Enbridge’s design and construction plans, the MPSC staff found that there are no concerns with the safety of the replacement segment of pipeline to be located within the tunnel,” Duffy said in a statement to MiBiz.
“Placing a pipeline in a new Great Lakes Tunnel will provide extra layers of safety and environmental protection and make what is currently a safe pipeline even safer, while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region,” Duffy added.
‘Disappointing and frustrating’
In case filings, Enbridge goes on to accuse Bay Mills of attempting to “ensure that it not only receives the proverbial ‘last word’ on this issue, but that it receives the only word on this issue. … This is highly prejudicial to the other parties, clouds the record upon which the (MPSC) must rely with these untested assertions, and does nothing but reward a party for procedural gamesmanship.”
Meanwhile, Enbridge is also seeking to strike testimony from Bay Mills President Whitney Gravelle and seven other experts and officials representing environmental groups, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
Administrative Law Judge Dennis Mack is expected to rule on Enbridge’s motions in the coming weeks.
Christopher Clark, supervising senior attorney with Bay Mills’ representative, Earthjustice, told MiBiz that Kuprewicz was retained specifically to respond to claims in September 2021 by MPSC staff and the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority about a tunnel virtually eliminating the risk of a spill into the Great Lakes.
“Consistently, we saw in (MPSC staff) testimony that the tunnel eliminated the risk posed by the pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac,” Clark said. “When we saw that, we felt the need to offer a rebuttal of those conclusions of the staff.”
In its Dec. 21 motion, Enbridge calls this assertion “pure fiction.”
However, Clark said Enbridge’s attempts to strike testimony from other environmental experts and tribal leaders is a pattern.
“It’s quite disappointing and frustrating that Enbridge has taken such an aggressive position to silence the concerns of the tribes,” Clark said.