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Pipeline safety expert: Latest Line 5 controversy about lack of trust, transparency

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan
A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

There’s something that seems to have united state officials and representatives across party lines and despite political disagreements.

That something is a new safety report from Enbridge Energy on Line 5, the pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

Enbridge delivered a report to state officials Monday saying there are more spots where the protective coating is worn off, and will need to be repaired. That report goes against what a company spokesman said last month, claiming all coating problems had been repaired.

A company executive admitted to reporters Monday that Enbridge does need to be more transparent.

The state has no regulatory authority over hazardous liquid pipelines in Michigan, and the federal government's authority amounts to an audit of company records to make sure they're following federal law. 

The only reason the state can push Enbridge for more information is because the company has a legal contract with the state. The two 20-inch pipelines run under the Straits of Mackinac under the conditions of a 1953 easement.

Richard Kuprewicz is a pipeline safety expert and president of Accufacts, Inc., which works with pipeline companies, although not Enbridge Energy.

He sat down with Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to explain how the coating damage may or may not affect the pipeline, and how Enbridge can deal with it.

Listen to their conversation above, or read highlights below.

On the coating that has officials concerned

“It’s an external coating applied to the outside of the pipeline, and it can be of various types. They’ve become more advanced in more recent years, but they can deteriorate with time, or they can be damaged either during operation or during installation.”

“It serves as the primary first line of protection. But, you know, I tell people, as much as we’d like it to be perfect, we know that it won’t always be perfect for various reasons. And so there are other systems that you can also apply to be sure that the...outside pipe wall being attacked by the environment doesn’t get out of hand.”

On the possibility of corrosion on Line 5

“I would expect, because of the low temperature of water around the pipeline, that there’s probably a low rate of corrosion. But that’s something that Enbridge can demonstrate by being more transparent. So the fact that they’re sending mixed signals about the coating, probably isn’t going over real well with government officials as well as the public.”

On fixing the coating gaps

“It’s underwater, and they’ve got to get someone down there to patch the coating on the pipe. It may be a big deal, because that particular area of Mackinac, depending on the weather, you don’t have very good visibility some times of the year. So they may not be able to get it recoated quickly, but they should be able to tell you, ‘this is how we can get somebody down there to do this.’”

“Again though, having the coating off the pipe may or may not be a real issue here. If the temperature’s real low, they’ve done some recent integrity management stuff that would indicate the pipe is pretty strong. I mean, the public, from their perspective, they think coating damage, their first reaction is, ‘something isn’t right here,’ and that’s valid. But there are other ways for the company to explain, without sounding defensive, that the science says we can deal with this, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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

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