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Senator Gary Peters grills feds, Enbridge VP at Line 5 field hearing

A man at one table and a panel of 5 people at another table sit on the stage of a full auditorium
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio

Representatives from federal agencies, Enbridge, and industry and environmental groups testified on Line 5, oil spill prevention and preparedness at a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Traverse City on Monday.

U.S. Senator Gary Peters grilled panelists for two hours in a packed auditorium at Northwestern Michigan College.


Peters asked about the federal response to an anchor strike incident in the Straits of Mackinac in April of this year, questioning the timeline and whether inspection of damage to the pipeline was a high enough priority. He also pressed federal officials on their ability to contain an oil spill in the Straits, asking how fast spill cleanup equipment could get to the Straits in an emergency (Rear Admiral Joanna Nunan of the U.S. Coast Guard said 12 hours at the longest).


Peters was highly critical of Enbridge throughout, citing a trust deficit stemming from past incidents (like the Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010). He spent a lot of time questioning Enbridge's actions during an April storm with high waves shortly after this year's anchor strike, when he says the company was reluctant to suspend operations, only relenting after multiple requests. 


The Senator addressed David Bryson, Senior VP of Operations for Liquid Pipelines at Enbridge, and received roaring applause from the crowd:


"Can you see why that is something that people look at and say, Enbridge is not really focused on going the extra measure of safety, when they had a damaged pipe and severe weather and they pushed back on shutting down to make sure nothing happened?"


Peters' questions also covered the condition of the pipeline, whether or not Michigan really needs and/or benefits from it, and the logistics of a possible decommission.


Carol Burns lives part-time near Frankfort, Michigan. She said she admired Senator Peters for calling the hearing, but echoed the sentiment of many who think it's long past time for hearings.


"There's just a lot of complexity, a lot of talk," she said. "The reality is simply, shut the pipeline down."

Desmond Berry, Natural Resources Director for theGrand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said he'd have liked to have seen a panelist representing Michigan Tribes, but was generally happy with Peters' questioning. He was, however, pretty unmoved by anything he heard from Enbridge. 

"A lot of the arguments we've already heard, and we've heard them numerous times."

Enbridge did present something new: they said at one point during the hearing that they would release video and images showing damage to Line 5 from the anchor strike in April, although no details on when or how were given.

Enbridge released the following e-mail statement regarding the hearing: 

"Pipeline safety and emergency response preparedness, as it relates to the Great Lakes is important for the people and businesses of Michigan, and is a critical priority for Enbridge. We welcome discussions about the best way to protect the Great Lakes while safely delivering much-needed energy on which Michigan families and businesses rely each day.


Safety and the prevention of incidents are at the forefront of our pipeline operations, which include Line 5 in the Straits.  Our safety measures include a 24-hour control center that monitors all of our lines and can initiate a shutdown in minutes; automatic shut-off valves that would contain a release; and well-trained, local personnel with emergency response equipment. 

The Straits of Mackinac is a special place, vital to Michigan residents and the State’s economy, and we fully intend to do our part to keep it that way."

You can watch video of the full hearing on the Senate Commerce Committee website.

In full disclosure, Enbridge is one of Michigan Radio's many financial supporters.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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