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Transparency must be order of the day

In Katie Deska's March issue feature story, "What's below the surface? Hazardous pipelines in Oakland County," we learn that national pipeline companies have four interstate hazardous liquid transmission pipelines bisecting Oakland County, one of which, the Mariner West project by Sunoco, is a liquid transmission line carrying ethane, a hazardous gas compressed into a liquid state for shipping, directly running through the greater Rochester area. 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. Local first responders get involved only when and if there is a pipeline leak or break, which can be catastrophic, but do not check or monitor the pipelines. Often, they have no idea what is being transported through their own communities unless, or until, there is a rupture. Further governance is a self-monitoring system. Sunoco prepares and inspects their pipeline on both a weekly and annual basis. According to local officials, by federal law, Sunoco has to fly over the entire pipeline and inspect it once a week, and physically walk the pipeline once a year to inspect for leaks or cracks. Add to this self-inspection, industry itself has a strong hand in writing the rules which govern transmission pipelines. This loose system of governance concerns us – having industry basically write the rules and then handle their own inspections. It can lead to problems and deception, and PHMSA should have a much more dominant role in the process, including inspections. If there is a leak, "the pipeline company would have to come in and stop the leak – they're high-priced distribution lines," observed Sean Canto, chief of fire and emergency services for Rochester Hills. Despite assurances from several Oakland County fire departments that they would be ready if there would be such a disaster, with requisite hazmat preparations, Bloomfield Township's Lt. William Fritz was more realistic and forthcoming. "Really, there's no way to prepare for it. 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." There have been a number of incidents around the country, including in Marshall, Michigan, in 2010, where a damaged pipe caused the largest inland spill into the Kalamazoo River in U.S. history, according to the Michigan Petroleum Pipe Line Task Force. Another 2010 incident, in San Bruno, California, occurred when a gas station exploded as a ruptured pipeline spewed natural gas and caused a blast which killed eight people, injured more than 50, and left behind a 72-foot long crater. According to First American Financial's JCP-LGS disclosures, regarding where pipelines are located in California, "Pipeline proximity disclosure is not currently mandated by a specific disclosure law. Why? Obtaining and integrating the federal pipeline mapping information into an automated disclosure system and updating it regularly is very expensive." In 2012, President Obama signed into law the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act, which increases federal enforcement authority, grants the federal government expanded authority over pipeline safety, provides for new safety regulations and authorizes completion of several pipeline safety studies. What it did not do is require public disclosure of where the pipelines are. Here in Michigan, a bill snaking through the state House, House Bill 4540, in committee as recently as February 22, would keep information about oil and gas pipelines, high powered electrical lines, and other critical energy infrastructure "out of potential terrorists' hands," by exempting from disclosure under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) any information about existing or proposed energy infrastructure, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth). His reasoning is it "could be useful to a person in planning an attack." It would also prevent the public from knowing where any pipelines are, all under the psychology of fearmongering. If we took this thinking further, the public would be prevented from knowing about anything within or surrounding our communities, from electric lines to cable lines to water wells, all to prevent possible terror attacks. Hiding under the cloak of terrorism is a tool of governments trying to keep their citizenry ignorant, and prevent them from asking questions. We must demand the open, fair and honest government we are guaranteed. As Samya Lutz, outreach coordinator for the Pipeline Safety Trust said, "When it's difficult for the public to access information, then we can't help them stay accountable for what they do."

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