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Oil spill drill will take place in the Straits of Mackinac today

Researchers from the University of Michigan looked at how far oil might travel with a 12-hour release in the Straits of Mackinac.
UM Water Center
Researchers from the University of Michigan looked at how far oil might travel with a 12-hour release in the Straits of Mackinac.

The scenario: Someone has spotted oil on Lake Michigan in the Straits of Mackinac. They place a call to an emergency response center.

What happens next?

Today, Enbridge and other emergency response officials will test whether their emergency oil spill response plan is effective.

Officials from Enbridge along with more than 300 other emergency response officials from local, state, and federal agencies will take part in the drill from around 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton will bring us reports from the Straits.

Enbridge is coordinating the drill around its Line 5 pipeline that runs underneath Lake Michigan at the Straits. The pipeline carries more than 500,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids a day.

People in the area can expect to see boats, oil booms, and other equipment deployed during the drill.

Michael Barnes of Enbridge says this is the first full-blown exercise in the Straits. He says the purpose is to test how well their emergency response plan works.

“The point of working with the first emergency responders and all the agencies, both federal and state, is to make sure that we’re coordinated, that we’re working together, and to identify any wrinkles in the plan that we need to adjust because this is the time to do that,” says Barnes. “This is a real exercise we’re practicing.”

Enbridge maintains that the 62-year-old pipeline is safe and has never had a release of oil.

That has not stopped calls from activists and others who say they want the oil pipeline shut down. They say running oil underneath the Straits of Mackinac is just too risky.

And experts note, with the fast currents running through the Straits, this is probably one of the worst places an oil spill could occur.

Last year, researchers from the University of Michigan’s Water Center examined what would happen to contaminants in a 12-hour release:

Within 20 days of a contaminant release in the Straits, material could be spread as far west as Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and as far southeast as Rogers City in Lake Huron.

The company says in the event of a leak or a pressure drop, valves on the pipelines in the Straits would automatically close in around three minutes.

In a series of responses to the state of Michigan about the pipeline, Enbridge said the “worst case” scenario for a spill in the Straits would be 8,583 barrels. Today's drill will not test that worst case scenario. In an e-mail the company said the drill will be conducted around  a release "in the thousands of barrels."

In full disclosure, Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.

*This post has been updated.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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