Are We Prepared For An Emergency?

Posted on September 19, 2014 by

On September 17, a phantom pipeline broke and pretended to spill oil in the Indian River in Cheboygan County—part of Michigan’s beautiful 40-mile Inland Waterway.  Thankfully, this pipeline break was only a simulation to help emergency staff prepare and practice for an actual spill.

Freshwater Future appreciates the effort of all the parties involved to take very seriously and practice for the potential of this situation and to dedicate 18-months to prepare for the drill and exercise.  These are critically important exercises because, as history as shown, pipelines break and spills happen. We can count on that.

However, it is important to recognize that spills in Mullett Lake, Burt Lake, and the Straits of Mackinac will be vastly different from spills in our rivers.  Are we prepared to handle a larger scale emergency if it occurs in open waters?

Last week a U.S. Coast Guard commander announced that they were not equipped or prepared for a “heavy oil” spill on the Great Lakes (Detroit Free Press, 9-11-2014). Even worse, according to Jerome Popiel, the Incident Management and Preparedness Advisor with the Ninth U.S. Coast Guard District, if that oil happens to be in the form of tar sands oil, the technology doesn’t even exist for a clean-up in our Great Lakes (Great Lakes Healing Our Waters Conference, 9-10-14)

We know that the existing Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac is old and potentially not adequately supported.  Computer modeling conducted by David J. Schwab, Ph.D., researcher at the University of Michigan, has also shown that if a spill were to occur in the Straits of Mackinac when it is windy, the spill could quickly cover a huge area that could surround Mackinac Island and reach Charlevoix.  This doesn’t even consider what would happen in the winter when the lakes are frozen.

A recently formed task force made up of Michigan’s Attorney General and head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are looking at petroleum pipeline safety such as Enbridge’s Line 5 and others that traverse our state.  I hope the leadership that inspired this recent simulation will continue on to prepare for a spill in our beloved inland lakes and the Straits of Mackinac.

Until the technology exists to clean up tar sands oil from our precious Great Lakes, we shouldn’t even consider allowing tar sands to be transported through our lakes, either by pipeline or tanker. However, we don’t know for sure that it isn’t being carried now because that information is not available to the public.  Interested citizens can contact the Michigan Attorney General’s office and Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and tell them you want to know if tar sands are being transported through our Great Lakes and to do what they can to prevent such transport until there are proven methods to deal with the inevitable accidents.

(Photo by Ben Salter, Flickr Creative Commons)


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.