Weaving under streets, yards, intersections, between miles of water mains, cables and a network of natural gas lines, four interstate hazardous liquid transmission pipelines bisect Oakland County. Of those, two carry crude oil; one carries refined petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and heating oil; and the fourth, ethane.
The companies which operate these potentially hazardous liquid transmission lines running through Oakland County include Enbridge Energy, Sunoco Pipe Line Company and Buckeye Partners. The vast majority of pipelines are gas distributions lines, which typically carry gas composed primarily of methane. Hazardous liquid lines include crude oil, petroleum products and other substances.
Enbridge operates Line 6B, which transmits crude oil through northern Oakland County, including the townships of Addison, Oxford, Brandon, Groveland and Holly. Line 6B continues west through Marshall, Michigan, where, in 2010, a damaged pipe caused the largest inland spill in U.S. history, according to the Michigan Petroleum Pipe Line Task Force.
A second crude oil line in Oakland County, the Marysville-Toledo segment operated by Sunoco Pipeline, runs through the southeast corner of the county, with a route that approximately traverses Troy, Royal Oak, and Southfield. It travels from Marysville, Michigan, near Port Huron, carrying crude oil to Toledo, where it is then distributed to regional refineries.
Sunoco’s ethane line, the Mariner West project, is a third hazardous liquid transmission line which goes directly through Oakland County. It stretches from the liquid-rich Marcellus Shale processing and fractionation areas in western Pennsylvania through Ohio and Michigan, en route to Sarnia, Ontario, destined to serve the petrochemical market. Ethane, a hazardous gas compressed into a liquid state for shipping, is used in the manufacturing of many plastics and other goods. The Inkster-Sarnia segment of the Mariner West project snakes through the communities of Bloomfield Township, Birmingham and the greater Rochester area.
Ethane, at standard temperature and pressure, is a colorless, odorless gas, which is isolated on an industrial scale from natural gas and is byproduct from petroleum refining. When exposed to oxygen, it becomes a gas, and at room temperature, it is extremely flammable.
Buckeye Partners operates an 8-inch diameter line in Oakland County, which ships petroleum products for other companies. It runs north along Haggerty Road, between the communities of West Bloomfield and Walled Lake, and approximately through Waterford, Clarkston, Groveland Township, and Ortonville.
Pipeline transport of gas and hazardous liquid – including, oil, petroleum products and ethane – is viewed as the safest, most efficient and environmentally-sane method of shipment currently available, and is preferred by the oil and gas industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) rather than by tanker trucks or railcar.
Pipelines are regulated by a consortium of government agencies, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Coast Guard, if it threatens surface water; the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA); and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pipeline operators must report to PHMSA on incidents that meet certain criteria. For the system of hazardous liquids, between 1996 and 2015 in the United States and the offshore areas beyond state lines, over 6,000 accidents were reported. Of those, 2,720 were considered significant, which includes accidents that cause death or hospitalization; cost more than $50,000; release five or more barrels of highly volatile liquid; and/or cause an unintentional fire. The number of significant accidents in a single year for all states and offshore areas combined peaked at 174, which occurred in 1996 and 2015.
The cost over the last two decades tallied nearly $4 billion, of which 24 percent, or roughly $964 million, was attributed to the 36 significant accidents that took place in Michigan. Approximately 1.78 million gallons, or 42,412 barrels, spilled in the Great Lakes state, resulting in a net loss of 9,065 barrels of hazardous liquid after cleanup efforts.
Local fire departments and hazmat teams are the first responders, often after residents call 911, noted Bloomfield Township Fire Department Lieutenant William Fritz. “If there were a leak or a rupture, we would probably get calls from citizens before we'd ever get calls from the company,” which then notifies the federal agencies, Fritz said. “We would move in as the fire department first, because our first concern is people's safety. There's always an explosion risk, and then follow up with our hazmat team. There are four or five guys that are trained and on the Oakland County Hazmat team. We would utilize our assets.”
Despite the high rate of hazard of the materials carried in these pipelines, PHMSA is only required to inspect interstate pipelines in locations deemed by the PHMSA to be “high-consequence areas,” such as highly populated or environmentally sensitive areas. “For transmission pipelines within high-consequence areas, for gas, they must be inspected every seven years, and for hazardous liquid, every five years at least,” said Samya Lutz, outreach coordinator for the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit established in Olympia, Washington after three boys were killed in a 1999 explosion caused from a leak in a pipeline carrying gasoline.
However, Fritz said Sunoco, by law, prepares and inspects their pipeline on both a weekly and annual basis. The line cuts right through the heart of Bloomfield Township, along Long Lake Road, with a pump station at Groton and Long Lake, on a former single-family site, which was built in late 2013, after Sunoco did a pipeline upgrade and switched its transport from a general transport pipeline to one which only transports ethane.
There are also pump stations in Rochester Hills, on Dequindre, near Yates Cider Mill, and in Troy at Arlund and Square Lake Roads, one block east of Adams.
Fritz said that, by federal law, Sunoco has to fly over the entire pipeline and inspect it once a week. “You can see a Cessna plane saying 'pipeline' flying low over the area once a week,” he said. In addition, Sunoco is required to walk the whole pipeline once a year to inspect for leaks or cracks.
PHMSA employs 243 individuals who make up the agency’s pipeline inspection and enforcement staff. The group “includes engineers, transportation specialists, lawyers, and others that support inspection and enforcement activities,” stated Darius Kirkwood, public affairs specialist for PHMSA. “We also rely on more than 500 state inspectors who carry out the majority of pipeline inspections for state agencies.”
Like most states, Michigan participates in the federal/state cooperative gas program, which certifies the Michigan Public Service Commission to inspect, and enforce intrastate natural gas pipeline safety statutes. Michigan is also one of a handful of states that acts as an interstate agent for interstate natural gas lines, enabling the Michigan Public Service Commission to operate as an agent for the federal authority.
“Inspections are done on an ongoing basis. For calendar year 2015, (Michigan Public Service Commission) safety engineers inspected all jurisdictional natural gas pipeline operators as required, achieving a total of 791 inspection days,” said Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist for the Michigan Agency for Energy and Michigan Public Service Commission.
On the other hand, Michigan does not participate as an agent on behalf of the federal regulatory body for the hazardous liquid pipeline state or interstate safety program. To qualify for certification, as Michigan has in the case of natural gas lines, a state must “provide for injunctive and monetary sanctions substantially the same as those authorized by the federal pipeline safety statutes,” and, according to the PHMSA website, the state must “encourage and promote the establishment of a program designed to prevent damage by demolition, excavation, tunneling, or construction activity to the pipeline facilities to which the certification applies, that subjects persons who violate the application requirements of that program to civil penalties and other enforcement actions.” These plans are then “characterized,” or evaluated, by PHMSA officials. Any probable violations are relayed to the federal Office of Public Safety. For intrastate lines, those which do not cross state borders, a state may set stricter regulations, but those laws must meet minimum federal safety standards.
Various methods of inspection are available, and technology has improved to make its inspections more reliable. However, the method of inspection is not specified in the federal code, Lutz of the Pipeline Safety Trust, noted. “Throughout these pipeline safety regulations, there are types of references that aren’t prescriptive by nature. It’s like having a speed limit sign that says ‘drive safely’ with a smiley face, but doesn’t list a number. That’s the case in a lot of these pipeline safety regulations. They don’t call out prescriptive standards in many places. There are a few prescriptive standards, there’s an example when they talk about how deep a pipe needs to be buried, that it must (meet that standard) at the time of construction, but no where does (the code) say that it must be maintained over time.”
Last October, PHMSA released proposed new safety regulations for hazardous liquid pipelines, which “addressed four congressional mandates, two National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, and a Government Accountability Office recommendation that PHMSA gather information and incident history for onshore hazardous liquid gathering lines to determine if stronger regulations are needed,” according to a press release published by the agency. One of the proposed rules “would require that all hazardous liquid pipelines have a system for detecting leaks and establish a timeline for inspections of affected pipelines following an extreme weather event or natural disaster.”
A Buckeye Pipe Line Company representative who is located in Michigan and works on the company’s flagship midwest north-south line along Haggerty Road said, “They do a lot of field inspection, and look at the tanks, (but) the tanks aren’t ours. They look at the manifold piping, how we do things. They compare our policies and procedures with what we're doing in the field. (An inspector) came last year. They come once every three to five years, maybe.”
That line runs from Toledo or Lima, Ohio to the Detroit area, on to Flint. The pipe Buckeye operates transports gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other refined petroleum products. “We’re like UPS or FedEx. Anyone – Marathon, Sunoco, the shippers on those lines – we're just the transportation mechanism,” he said. He noted that one of the line’s largest shippers is Marathon, and a substantial number of barrels are piped to and from the Marathon refinery located in southwest Detroit.
While a portion of the commodities shipped do reach buyers in the state, many barrels are destined to cross state lines or international borders, such as Sunoco’s ethane line headed to Canada, which began shipping ethane in December of 2013. The Inkster-Sarnia segment of the project enters Oakland County at 8 Mile Road, and runs north along Inkster Road, jogs east at 14 Mile Road, and continues north along Franklin Road, passing the boundaries of Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, where it hooks east again at Long Lake Road, to connect to Telegraph Road. Northbound, it reaches Square Lake Road, and travels east to Livernois Road. The line goes on to bisect M-59, where it then crosses northeast into Rochester Hills and Rochester, exiting the county at Dequindre Road, just north of Avon Road, at Cut Crystal Lane.
The Mariner West line was designed to ship 50,000 barrels of ethane a day, and the website notes the line can accommodate higher volumes.
“Ethane is an essential feedstock for the production of ethylene, from which plastics, textiles, coatings, flooring, detergents, and many other materials are produced. Ethane can also be burned as fuel, including for power generation, though it is not widely used for that purpose in the U.S.,” said Jeff Shields, communication manager for Sunoco Logistics. “The original (Mariner West pipeline) was installed in 1950. Some sections were replaced in 2013,” said Shields.
Both pipes operated by Sunoco are made of carbon steel, which has less carbon content than iron, a hard but comparatively brittle metal susceptible to damage and used in older pipes. Cast iron pipes are troubling to safety regulating agencies, such as PHMSA, because of the increased potential for breaks, and subsequent leaks. According to an American Petroleum Institute report prepared in 2001, “By the late 1960s, manufacturers began to use low alloy or low carbon steels exclusively, in tougher grades, resulting in steel with few defects.” However, cast iron pipes remain underground both nationally and locally, and the USDOT stated there are still “about 36,000 miles of cast iron main (natural) gas distribution lines in the U.S.” Five states hold 80 percent of those, one of which is Michigan.
When a leak occurs in a pipe transporting ethane, the hazardous liquid, the pressure will decrease and vapor will escape. As ethane is heavier than air, the extremely flammable gas will typically spread close to the ground. “Ethane is a highly volatile liquid,” said Lutz of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “Generally (highly volatile liquids) are liquid at ambient temperature and pressures less than 1000 (pounds per square inch).” When a leak occurs, “it flows around the ground and can gather, and if not ignited, can be an asphyxiation danger, or if ignited, it can be a fireball that doesn’t disperse quickly.”
Like other hazardous liquid leaks, crude oil spills can be detrimental to the watershed, the environment and its species, and cause undue hardship for the landowners in the spill zone.
Enbridge Energy had to rebuild Line 6B, alongside the former line, after the 30-inch diameter pipe ruptured in a wetlands in Marshall, Michigan, about 120 miles west of Birmingham. The incident caused an estimated 843,000 gallons of heavy crude oil to be dumped into Talmadge Creek and, subsequently, the Kalamazoo River. According to the accident report prepared by the National Transportation Safety Board, the rupture “occurred in the final minute of a planned shutdown” and “was not discovered or addressed for over 17 hours. During the time lapse, Enbridge twice pumped additional oil (81 percent of the total release) into Line 6B during two startups... About 320 people reported symptoms consistent with crude oil exposure. No fatalities were reported.”
At the time of the break, the commodity being shipped was a sticky fossil fuel, called diluted bitumen, a substance too thick to travel by pipe without dilution via lighter grade oil. Had it migrated an additional 80 river miles, it would have reached Lake Michigan, according to the EPA, the federal agency charged with leading the cleanup of the disaster.
Regarding the Line 6B spill, “Clearly water is impacted,” said Ralph Dollhopf, federal on-scene coordinator for Region 5 of the EPA. “We are immediately the lead agency. It's our responsibility to manage and oversee, and in some cases, direct the cleanup of responsible parties. That to-do list can be transmitted to them in different ways. Sometimes we issue an administrative order (as with Enbridge), that requires them to do X, Y, Z.
“I was the on-scene federal coordinator that was charged with overseeing the cleanup response of that (Line 6B spill) back in 2010,” he said. “When it comes to oil or petroleum pipelines, those are predominantly what the EPA responds to. Our marching orders, our objectives, are to get as much of the oil recovered as we can until we get to the point when there is more environmental harm being caused by clean up activities than the environmental benefits. We call that a net environmental analysis.” Dollhopf gave the example of when there’s “highly valued aquatic plants or highly valued aquatic animals, whose environment would be destroyed by clean up activity.” In that case, he said, using excavation equipment to tear up the wetland “may be more detrimental that letting it naturally biodegrade over time – heal, if you will.”
Who paid for the Enbridge spill and clean up? Costs incurred by Enbridge exceeded $1 billion. “Funding for the incident like Enbridge on the Kalamazoo River, that funding for the cleanup predominantly comes from responsible parties, however, there are costs associated with government involvement in government oversight. Those monies come from what’s called an oil spill liability trust fund,” said Dollhopf. “Our government costs exceeded $60 million. However, once clean up is done, or before it’s done, the government seeks reimbursement for those costs from the responsible parties.” Meaning, Enbridge.
Locally, Oakland County has a Hazardous Materials Response Team, part of a statewide response team and the Michigan State Police Regional Response Team, designed and prepared to react in case of a hazardous leak or spill. “Membership (in the county’s response team) includes 40 hazmat technicians, specialists, and officers from multiple participating fire departments, police departments, and public safety agencies,” according to its website.
If there is a leak, “the pipeline company would have to come in and stop the leak – they're high-priced distribution lines,” said Sean Canto, chief of fire and emergency services for Rochester Hills. “Our dispatch system also has the information on which company to contact. We can also contact MDEQ and the Department of Homeland secretary to get people rolling.”
Birmingham Fire Chief John Connaughton explained potential signs of leaks. “The vegetation starts to turn brown, like a 20-foot area turns brown. That's an alert that there is a leak. Or there could be standing liquid where it shouldn't be and another indicator that there is a broken pipe. We don't have a lot of lines in Birmingham. But we're absolutely prepared.”
Bloomfield Township's Lt. Fritz disagreed. “Really, there's no way to prepare for it. While a small leak could be contained, like a having a natural gas leak if it's caught early. But otherwise, anything else would be pretty devastating,” he said. “Anything else could be a complete rupture of the line, and the potential is there.
“It doesn't happen often,” Fritz noted. “Only two to three times a decade. The lines are pretty safe. But our biggest concern is the age of the lines, and how often they are inspected.”
“Multiple commodity lines do transport substances through pipelines. None go through Bloomfield Hills, but do go through Bloomfield Township,” said David Hendrickson, chief of public safety for Bloomfield Hills. “We're actually more concerned about tanker accidents and tanker spills, sulfur dioxide spills and noxious gas spills on the track because we have train tracks along Kensington Road.”
Ironically, the federal agency that responds to the spill, the EPA, does not partake in setting safety regulations.
“I’m not aware of any role that the EPA has when it comes to advising PHMSA on regulations. That is strictly a DOT (Department of Transportation) jurisdiction. The EPA’s role is to respond to pipeline and hazardous material incidents. Similarly, PHMSA is not a response agency. Only the EPA and Coast Guard can do that,” Dollhopf said. “PHMSA also has a role when it comes to ensuring pipeline companies had adequate contingency planning in place, for spills of pipelines. PHMSA is charged with the responsibility to oversee the pipeline company’s facility response plan.”
There is also a certain air of mystery that surrounds what is contained in the pipes running through communities. What is transported in those pipelines is not necessarily communicated to – nor regulated by – state or local officials.
“We do not keep records, or have knowledge of what (the companies) transfer,” said Dave Chislea, manager of gas safety operations for the Michigan Public Service Commission. “PHMSA doesn’t keep that information. We wouldn’t know what specific products they’re transferring. From a practical standpoint, whether it’s a heavy crude or light crude, I don’t think there’s a need for a regulator to know that. From a pipeline safety perspective it doesn’t matter if it’s crude or light. Products within the pipe, it doesn’t affect the design.”
“As a pipeline company, we transport what the customers request to transport,” said Sunoco's Shields. “There are no separate regulations for the type or grade of crude oil,” which the industry classifies as light, medium, heavy, or extra heavy, according to the American Petroleum Institute Gravity Index.
The exact location of pipelines is also not information that’s readily available to the public. A vague route of an interstate hazardous liquid line or gas distribution line can be found online through the National Pipeline Mapping System. The non-specific nature of the mapping system is intentional in an effort to protect against security threats to the energy industry. “The Public Map Viewer must not be used to identify exact location of pipelines,” the site states. “The (National Pipeline Mapping System) does in fact provide data for inter- and intrastate hazardous liquid pipeline systems,” said Kirkwood of PHMSA. “The only types of lines that are not included in (the system) are unregulated pipeline systems or those we do not collect data for, such as distribution or gathering lines.”
Currently there’s a bill before the Michigan House of Representatives that would further prevent public access to the location of the pipelines. House Bill 4540 would amend two sections of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to allow a public body “to exempt from disclosure information that is presumed to be critical energy infrastructure information… The presumption continues until determined otherwise by the Michigan Agency for Energy.”
“There are already protections in the law for property data that can be exempted with existing FOIA rules, and in (the Pipeline Safety Trust’s) opinion, that is plenty of protection, and there’s no need for Michigan to go above and beyond that,” said Lutz. “It’s so important for the public to access this information. The regulators need public attention to do their job well, and when it’s difficult for the public to access information, then we can’t help them stay accountable for what they do. The citizens have a big role to play to keep (the pipelines) safe, and keeping this out of the hands of the citizens is really a disservice to the whole goal of pipeline safety.”
Lastly, while many pipelines have been in place for years, there are periodic requests for new lines. The state Crude Oil and Petroleum Act of 1929 gives the Michigan Public Service Commission the authority to approve the construction of new crude oil and petroleum pipelines within Michigan. The act specifically outlines the key role that eminent domain plays in siting new pipelines, stating that an authorized entity “is granted the right to condemn property by eminent domain and the use of the highways in this state to acquire necessary rights-of-way” in order to transport crude oil, petroleum, or carbon dioxide substances.
Although different types of commodities can cause various degrees of harm if improperly transported, the Michigan Public Service Commission doesn’t take into account what is being pushed through the line when it approves a line. “To acquire eminent domain, the interstate pipeline has to have Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval,” said Bloomfield Hills attorney Alan Ackerman.
In a rare, and successful, effort to keep a new line out of northern Oakland County when a section of the 700-plus mile ET Rover natural gas pipeline was slated to traverse Oakland County, neighbors and Oakland County commissioners Robert ‘Bob’ Hoffman and Michael Spisz recently mobilized their community to fight it.
“Rover was not about being on my property,” Hoffman said. “But I represent Highland, Springfield, Holly and Groveland townships.” In some cases, the route was “too close to residents, like the front porch, like really close,” said Hoffman. “It would impact someone’s residential properties and might hurt the value – that would impact the value of your home, you can’t add on, you can't do any construction on the easement because they don’t want the chance of hitting it. A group got together, and commissioner Mike Spiz, representing Brandon, played a hand also, to try to convince them there might be a better route. For whatever reasons, probably a certain amount of pressure, I’m convinced, they found a better route. I know they did because they moved it.”
The Rover pipeline was re-routed to Genesee and Lapeer counties.