Enbridge, Emergency Responders Plan Oil Spill Drill In Straits Of Mackinac

Environmental Groups Have Questioned Integrity Of 6-Decade Old Underwater Pipeline

David Marvin (CC-BY-NC-ND)

An energy firm is planning to hold a drill with federal, state and local agencies next month to test its ability to respond to an underwater oil spill.

Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline runs from Superior underwater through the Straits of Mackinac to Ontario. Enbridge Spokesman Michael Barnes said the impending drill will test their response plan in case of a spill, ensuring that responders “can get equipment on the scene effectively.”

U.S. Coast Guard Contingency Preparedness Specialist Steve Keck said it will be the largest drill they’ve done with Enbridge in the straits.

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“This one’s going to have dozens of boats on the water. We’re going to have multiple aircraft. We’re going to have drones out there. We’re going to have wave gliders deployed by (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) to give us real-time currents on the winds and the water,” he said.

Keck said Coast Guard experts will examine if Enbridge’s plan works in practice. Up to 500 responders are expected to take part.

Keck said an oil spill in the straits poses would pose a challenge, due to the location’s distance from major metropolitan areas. He said it may be five to seven hours before more help or resources would arrive in the event of a spill.

He said that the guard has done five oil spill drills in the last five years, including three during the winter months when response can be even more challenging.

Environmental groups have criticized Enbridge for its response to the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill that went unchecked for 17 hours. They have also expressed concern over the integrity of the six-decade old Line 5 pipeline.

Enbridge officials have said that more than $4 billion in technology and safety upgrades have been made to their pipelines to ensure any spill would be detected within minutes.

Barnes also said Enbridge is focused on preventing any spills, but that if a spill does occur, the company is taking steps to ensure that their response is as effective and timely as possible.

Meanwhile, researchers at Michigan Tech will begin collecting information about the flows in the straits to help maintain the underwater pipeline. Michigan Tech Great Lakes Research Center Director Guy Meadows said the team will be placing a buoy in the strait that will measure the speed of flows that affect the pipeline.

“It’s a very complicated region in terms of the flows shifting not only horizontally across the straits, but also vertically with depth,” he said.

Barnes said Enbridge is funding the project, and that “knowing real-time data” will help the company know if and where more support for the pipeline is necessary.