A $1.4 million line item in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $60.2 billion budget proposal unveiled March 5 calls for a three-year project to catalog “hazardous materials pipelines” that cross Michigan waterways.
Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger told lawmakers this month the study, spurred by the debate over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, is needed to fill an information gap about dangers posed to Michigan waters.
Michigan has 3,500 miles of such pipelines criss-crossing the state, but state government has a comprehensive inventory of just 645 miles, according to the DNR. Those are related to Line 5, and identify nearly 400 water crossings.
“A lot of these are old,” Eichinger said. “A lot of the data about where they are and what sensitive environments or habitats they may cross is not well known or understood by us.”
Speaking to a state Senate appropriations subcommittee March 12, Eichinger said the “mapping exercise” to inventory pipelines would “give us critical business intelligence of where risk might reside underground.”
The plan is to digitize historic documents and gather information from pipeline owners, using GIS technology to overlay pipelines at water crossings. Once complete, the inventory “would be evaluated to determine priority water crossings, and we would provide that information to the public and applicable pipeline owners,” said DNR spokesperson Ed Golder.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) defines these pipelines to include crude oil, refined petroleum products, “highly volatile liquids or other flammable or toxic fluids,” carbon dioxide and biofuel.
“We have been pushing the state to look more holistically on oil pipeline infrastructure in Michigan and water crossings, so we are very supportive of this budget ask,” said Charlotte Jameson, energy policy and legislative affairs director for the Michigan Environmental Council.
The inventory project aligns with findings of the state’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) that former Gov. Rick Snyder convened to study Michigan pipelines, and Line 5 in particular. In a set of recommendations to Snyder in December, PSAB members said the state should consider a hazardous liquids pipeline safety program that could involve partnering on inspection duties with federal regulators.
For about $70,000 a year, “there is an opportunity to have more control over the flow of information and establishing safe standards and practices, which the PSAB has learned has been a problem in evaluating Line 5 and other pipelines,” wrote Mike Shriberg, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes regional executive director.
The Michigan Agency for Energy also studied the potential for such a program. In addition to participating in federal pipeline regulators’ inspections, the agency said the state “should continue to seek ways to improve access to information about liquids pipelines in Michigan and to ensure the State remains connected to the decision-making processes surrounding such pipelines.”
Establishing a hazardous liquids safety program would also give state staff access to company inspection records and spill response plans, the agency said.
Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company is required to provide pipeline information to PHMSA.
“We also recently provided the State of Michigan with information on all Line 5 water crossings as part of our agreements,” Duffy said.
Liz Kirkwood, executive director of Traverse City-based For Love of Water, says it’s important for the state to clarify the role of pipeline companies when sharing information.
“It sounds great to do an inventory, but the question is: Is this a situation where industry should be providing more information to the DNR and PHMSA as the regulators?” Kirkwood said.
She added that the public’s understanding of the underground network of pipelines in Michigan is “very limited.”
“With Line 5, there are hundreds of river crossings and the public does not know the status of those sensitive waterways,” Kirkwood said. “Additional data would certainly be vital for greater transparency, knowledge and awareness.”
She added that the short staffing for pipeline inspections at the federal level and industry-friendly regulations make self-reporting even more important.
“A real takeaway is that the self-reporting from industry is fundamental to the public’s knowledge and awareness about the health of the pipelines,” Kirkwood said.
Former DNR Director Keith Creagh and Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether, who co-chaired the PSAB, appear to agree in a December letter to Snyder.
“The state should make sure pipeline companies are more transparent and the public has easy access to useful pipeline data and information,” they wrote in the letter.
During the March 12 committee hearing, Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, supported the need for an inventory study. He cited a recent oil leak in the Muskegon River from a corroded abandoned pipeline.
“I would think this is going to be a program we need to do,” Bumstead said.
Eichinger agreed, summarizing that the state’s information sources remain limited.
“We really don’t know where they are and what kind of condition they’re in,” Eichinger said. “Before we put ourselves in a position to answer any of those questions, we have to know what we’re dealing with here.”