Small pipeline leak prompts infrastructure review

December 19, 2014

Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline, which runs through Michigans's Upper Peninsula, has sparked debate after a "pinhole leak" was discovered to be emitting natural gas liquids. Although an Enbridge spokesman assured the media that the leak has no negative impact to the air or soil, some environmental groups have expressed concern about other possible leaks in the pipeline, which runs through both east and west portions of the state and underneath the Straits of Mackinac.

The leak was identified during a scheduled investigation on December 8, and is attributed to a "pinhole-sized defect, observed in the weld of the pipe."  The Line 5 pipeline is used to transport light crude oil, light synthetic crude and natural gas liquids.

"Our maintenance program detected even this minor irregularity, indicating the ability of our program to maintain Line 5 pipeline integrity," Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum explained in a press release. "This is a clear example of how we are working to identify and repair anomalies before there is any impact to the environment or those who live and work along our pipelines."

Despite these assurances, the Michigan Chapter of the nonprofit Sierra Club has called the leak a "wake-up call," and urged relevant state and federal agencies to issue a report on the extent of environmental threats posed by the pipeline.

With the Great Lakes already facing a host of environmental issues, including toxic algae blooms, environmental groups asked whether the risks of continuing to operate the 61-year-old pipeline outweigh the benefits.

The Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force, which is responsible for reviewing the safety and efficacy of the state's pipeline infrastructure, explained that they have reviewed the incident and have ensured that the leak was properly repaired. However, some groups, such as National Wildlife Federation, remain unconvinced, and are calling for the pipeline to be rerouted away from the area surrounding the Great Lakes. 

National Wildlife Federation Vice President for Conservation Action Andy Buchsbaum said that the pinhole leak was evidence that "eventually, all pipelines leak." He added, "Knowing that sooner or later Line 5 will leak again, it's simply unacceptable for a portion of that pipeline to be lying on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac."

Enbridge is responsible for managing the pipeline that burst near Marshall, Michigan, in July 2010. That incident remains the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, which polluted a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River. Remediation efforts continued for more than 4 years, and cost over $1 billion.

The Line 5 pipeline will most likely continue to be a source of controversy, as the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force pursues its investigations into potential environmental concerns. Environmental consultants should be included in the analysis to ensure that a proper balance is struck between ecological and economic considerations.