Pipelines, fish tanks and environmental risk

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By David Poulson


As I watched a new documentary about the controversial Enbridge oil pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac, I thought of the aquarium I recently bought at a garage sale.

“Oil and Water” released Tuesday by VICE Motherboard features environmental advocates concerned about two parallel pipelines crossing the straits and a company official who reassures viewers that all is safe.

The film nicely uses a digital model of where oil would flow if the pipeline bursts. Upending the Basin rotationThat’s not the first time that model has been used by media, including here at Echo.

But it may be the most effective. When University of Michigan modeler David Schwab is interviewed on camera, he says, “I can’t imagine another place in the Great Lakes where it would be more devastating to have an oil spill in terms of the amount of shoreline that would be impacted and the speed that it would be impacted at.”

Also featured is retired engineer Bruce Trudgen. At the age of 21, Trudgen was on the crew that installed the five-mile long pipelines. When filmmaker Spencer Chumbley asked him how long they are supposed to last, Trudgen replies, “At that time they said 50 years. So Enbridge has decided it’s good way past 50 years. And they didn’t put it there.”

That was 62 years ago. And it brings us to my deal for that old aquarium. The 55-gallon tank had been most recently used as the home for two lizards.

“Does it hold water?” I asked the owner.

“It did the last I knew.”

“How much do you want for it?”

“Two dollars.”

How could I go wrong? I struck the deal.

I had planned to set the tank up in my garage and fill it with water for a few days to check for leaks. The last thing I wanted was 55 gallons of water draining through the floor and into my basement.

But I abandoned that strategy after a quick mental risk assessment. Even if my garage floor remained dry, there was no way of knowing if the tank would leak within hours, days, months or years after moving it into the house. Who knew what age and lizards did to its integrity?

So while it’s a lengthy and tedious task requiring a patience I find difficult to muster, I decided to remove the old silicone sealer and replace it.

What does my fish tank have to do with Enbridge’s pipeline?

Company officials say their inspection reports indicate that the pipeline is in good shape. That’s the equivalent of my dry garage floor test.

But it was built with a 62-year-old technology and is now 12 years beyond its anticipated lifetime. What’s more, Enbridge says that changes in the lake bottom caused some sections to become unsupported, requiring the installation of new supports.

What else is going on that we don’t know about or cannot anticipate? Will zebra mussels cause pipeline problems?

Those questions — the risks – are not unlike the uncertain impacts of lizards and aging silicone on the integrity of my new fish tank. And installing the new supports is not unlike my replacing that silicone.

But to extend this risk comparison, factor in the consequences of the wrong choice. For me, it’s dead fish and a lot of work with a bucket and mop.

For the pipeline? Well, take another look at Schwab’s spill model and at the $1.2 billion cleanup along the Kalamazoo River after another Enbridge pipe burst in 2010.

This analogy is hardly perfect. Perhaps pipe inspectors are far better at rating structural integrity than my dry garage floor test. Maybe, despite spills elsewhere, Enbridge is really good at keeping on top of potential problems. After all, a catastrophic spill is not only an expensive public relations disaster, it means no oil gets moved.

Where’s the incentive to cut corners?

“The notion that a company like Enbridge would not maintain a line is just atrocious, it’s quite false,” Jason Manshum, the company’s public affairs specialist, says in “Oil and Water.”

Risk assessment quickly gets complicated when you start weighing things more consequential than a leaky fish tank. What is the economic impact of closing that pipeline? How do we weigh that? Will gasoline be more expensive? How much? Would you pay another penny a gallon if it prevented a catastrophic spill? How about a dime?

And could closing pipelines divert oil into riskier methods of transportation, far more prone to accidents and failure?

But here is the key way this analogy falls apart: I have control over the risk from a leaky aquarium. I can choose to use it, rehab it, replace it with a new one or decide that even a new one is not worth the risk.

As for the risk this pipeline poses for the Sweetwater Seas? They may be held in public trust, but apparently we don’t have a say in risking their fate.

Indeed, a recent state petroleum pipeline task force has recommended that the state be allowed to take on the role of inspecting the pipeline and that public participation in decision making be increased.

Those things don’t happen now?

It’s our water and our risk.

It should be our call if this is a risk that we want to take.

Great Lakes Echo Editor David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Upending the basin is an occasional column about reporting on the environment.

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