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Lawsuit against Coast Guard could eventually trigger Line 5 oil pipeline shutdown

U.S. Sailors with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron and members of the Maritime Disaster Prevention Center, set up an oil containment boom during spill response training at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, May 18, 2018. Environmental advocates are suing the U.S. Coast Guard on claims the federal agency is not prepared to clean up a Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan.

U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By MICHAEL KRANSZ | The Grand Rapids Press, Mich. | Published: August 23, 2018

ST. IGNACE, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Environmental advocates are suing the U.S. Coast Guard on claims the federal agency is not prepared to clean up a Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac.

If successful, the lawsuit would potentially trigger a shutdown of the controversial oil and gas pipeline until Coast Guard officials can demonstrate they're adequately able to clean up an oil spill in the Great Lakes, according to environmental group lawyers.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 22, by Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Great Lakes Regional Office of the National Wildlife Federation in U.S. District Court Eastern District.

In summer 2017, the Coast Guard approved an updated contingency plan for containing and removing a worst-case discharge of oil into the Great Lakes.

Later that year, the then-top Coast Guard official testified under oath that his agency was not prepared for a major oil spill in the Great Lakes.

The contradiction, the lawsuit claims, is a violation of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The act requires contingency plans to provide an adequate response for a worst-case oil discharge.

"We contend that the approval of the plan is improper because the plan is not adequate to remove a worst-case discharge, and this is based on Coast Guard testimony in front of the U.S. Congress," ELPC senior attorney Margrethe Kearney said. "If you can't clean up the spill, you can't operate the oil pipeline. Here it's clear: the Coast Guard has said they can't clean up the spill."

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Paul Rhynard declined to comment on the lawsuit but said his agency is "confident" in the plan and the ability to respond to a worst-case oil discharge in the Straits.

"The efforts that goes into these contingency plans is deliberate," Rhynard said.

In a worst-case scenario Straits rupture, Line 5 would gush 2,436,000 gallons of oil, slick 437 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and cost $1.86 billion in damages, according to a study spearheaded by Michigan Technological University.

The lawsuit cites comments Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, then the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, made to federal lawmakers at a Nov. 16 hearing.

During the hearing, Zukunft suggested various factors could complicate efforts to clean up an oil spill in the Great Lakes.

"I will go on the record to say that the Coast Guard is not 'semper paratus' for a major pipeline oil spill in the Greater Lakes," Zukunft responded. "More science needs to be done."

Semper paratus is a Latin phrase meaning "always ready." It is the Coast Guard's motto.

If the lawsuit is successful, it would invalidate the Coast Guard's contingency plans regarding oil pipelines in the Great Lakes.

By extension, it would also invalidate the response plans of companies operating oil pipelines in the Great Lakes until the Coast Guard can demonstrate it is prepared for a worst-case discharge, Kearney said.

The result could be a potential compliance shutdown of the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline, Kearney said.

"If you don't have a facility response plan, then you can't operate," she said.

The lawsuit comes days after U.S. Sen. Gary Peter's again questioned Coast Guard and other federal officials on their preparedness and ability to clean up a Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac.

Speaking with reporters following the U.S. Senate field hearing in Traverse City, Peters said he was not "satisfied" with the Coast Guard's preparedness for a spill in the Straits during difficult weather.

"I was not satisfied with the answer, although I appreciate the efforts of the Coast Guard -- I work closely with the Coast Guard, they're remarkable folks," Peters said. "But I think their view may have been optimistic, particularly given what often happens in the Straits, which is a difficult weather environment."

The senator went on to cite a high-wave event which would've rendered oil removal equipment called "skimmers" inoperable.

The skimmers cannot function in waves higher than 3 feet, he said. A November 2017 agreement between Enbridge and the state requires the company to shut down operations if waves exceed 8 feet.

Ice cover, high waves and lack of research around freshwater oil spills complicate cleaning up a spill in the Great Lakes, Peters said.

Calls to shut down the 65-year-old pipeline were reinvigorated in April when an anchor dented the twin pipelines in three places and "gouged" it in a fourth. Line integrity was not compromised, Enbridge officials said.

Composite sleeves were wrapped about the dented portions to strengthen the lines. That work finished the week of July 30, according to Enbridge officials.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has set a deadline of Sept. 30 to formalize an agreement with Enbridge on the future of Line 5.

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