I-Team Report: Pipeline Patrol - WNEM TV 5

I-Team Report: Pipeline Patrol

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When you say the Straits of Mackinac, pretty much everyone in Michigan knows what you’re talking about.

It’s a beautiful stretch of water underneath the Mackinac Bridge and it means so much for tourism and the commercial fishing industry in the state.

Can you imagine that there’s an oil pipeline underneath?  Even worse, it could rupture.

"It really would be catastrophic for this area and for the state if there was an oil spill,” David Holtz said.

Holtz is with the Sierra Club and the group Oil and Water Don't Mix. It recently published video of the pipeline problems on Enbridge Line 5. 

Holtz said Line 5, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, needs to be shut down now.

"Coatings falling off, large sections of the pipe apparently damaged,” Holtz said.

The company made the blockbuster announcement late last week that it knew about those pipeline problems three years ago and didn't notify regulators. 

Before that announcement was made, the I-Team talked with Enbridge Spokesman Ryan Duffy, who told us there are no worries when it comes to a rupture to the line.

"Those lines are also constantly inspected and those for the underground pipes that is mainly done through those in-line inspection tools where we send those small machines that work like small MRI’s through the pipe,” Duffy said.

Could a fuel line rupture happen in our region like the disaster in the Kalamazoo River seven years ago?  

Opponents said yes.

"Inspectors spend about six days a year on a thousand miles of pipeline inspecting. That gives you some idea this is not eyes on these pipelines on any real comprehensive way,” Holtz said.

The Federal Department of Transportation keeps tabs on oil pipelines. 

TV5 tried to ask a spokesman questions about whether there are enough inspectors, but he declined, directing all questions to government websites. 

TV5 wanted to ask the feds if they have enough inspectors to prevent the Kalamazoo River disaster from happening again - an estimated 877,000 gallons of oil that coated birds and fish as it poured into that waterway.   

Enbridge owns that line.

"We've significantly enhanced our approach to safety to prevent an incident like that from ever happening again,” Duffy said.

Meanwhile, the State of Michigan inspects natural gas lines. 

Dave Chislea, the manager of gas operations for the Michigan Public Service Commission, said a rupture of such a line could be dangerous.

"Yes, there can be leaks, and that gas can get into the atmosphere, it can migrate into structures,” Chislea said.

The state said it has enough inspectors and will soon hire more.

"We're looking to add a couple more right now,” Chislea said.

That will total 11 engineers and two supervisors, but the Sierra Club said that's not near enough - especially when you look at alarming national figures.

"The number of cases where there have been safety inspection violations have skyrocketed over the past three, four years, with 21 fatalities since 1991 associated with gas pipelines,” Holtz said.

From 2007 up until the last year figures were given – 2015 – there was a big jump of natural gasoline violations in the state. It went from seven to a whopping 372 in 2014, then down to 167 in 2015.

The numbers submitted for action and being corrected also saw a huge increase.

“Homeowners are very concerned. The pipeline companies have tremendous rights. They have been given to be able to condemn property and put pipelines in, and they're citing these pipelines sometimes within a hundred feet of a house,” Holtz said.

So, what's the answer to making the threat of fuel line spills or leaks go away?  The Sierra Club said look to Mother Nature for our energy needs such as solar or wind energy, but until that happens, the inspections need to be beefed up.

"There has to be a much more robust inspection that what we have in Michigan,” Holtz said.

Meanwhile, the State of Michigan is considering shutting down Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac. 

Last week, Attorney General Bill Schuette said, “Enbridge owes the citizens of Michigan a full and complete explanation of why they failed to truthfully report the status of the pipeline.” 

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