Coast Guard Plan for Great Lakes Oil Spill Spurs Lawsuit

DETROIT (CN) – Environmentalists claim in a federal lawsuit that the U.S. Coast Guard has not developed a sufficient response plan for the cleanup of potential major oil spills in northern Michigan.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and National Wildlife Federation say the Coast Guard’s approval of an area contingency plan (ACP) last year for northern Michigan is not “adequate to remove a worst case discharge” in violation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or OPA.

The Mackinac Bridge in Michigan.

“Between 2014 and 2017, Coast Guard personnel have publicly stated that the agency is ill-equipped to adequately remove a spill from the open waters of the Great Lakes – let alone one as severe as a worst case discharge,” according to the 26-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in Detroit federal court by attorney Margrethe Kearney of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The Northern Michigan Area Contingency Plan at issue covers the Straits of Mackinac, which links Lake Michigan and Lake Huron under the Mackinac Bridge, and the surrounding coastal areas.

The environmental groups say the contingency plan’s failure to comply with the OPA also impacts facility response plans (FRP), which are required for companies to operate oil pipelines.

“Without a valid ACP covering this geographic area, any FRP for a pipeline that would discharge directly into the open waters of the Great Lakes likewise fails to meet OPA…requirements,” according to the lawsuit.

The groups claim Enbridge Inc. therefore should not be allowed to operate its two pipelines for crude oil under the Straits of Mackinac, Line 6B and Line 5.

Line 6B ruptured in July 2010, sending more than 1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in one of the nation’s largest inland oil spills. The company reached a $75 million settlement with Michigan and agreed to pay $177 million in penalties. The older Line 5 has been in place for 65 years and is a continual concern of environmentalists, who want regulators to shut it down.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and National Wildlife Federation want a judge to declare the Coast Guard’s approvals of portions of the Northern Michigan Area Contingency Plan pertaining to oil pipelines in the open waters of the Great Lakes – and any FRP covering oil pipelines operating in those open waters – are not in line with the OPA and must be declared legally invalid.

The lawsuit comes over a year after the National Wildlife Federation’s failed attempt to challenge the U.S. Department of Transportation’s approval process of oil spill response plans. A federal judge ruled that the group lacked standing to bring the claims because the agency’s regulations were equivalent to those provided by federal environmental laws, and it had failed to show how a rule change would have affected the outcome of the government’s decision to approve the pipeline.

Howard Learner, executive director and attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in a statement that the Coast Guard “admitted that it’s not fully ready and fully able to protect the Great Lakes from a major oil spill.”

“The Great Lakes are where we live, work and play, and supply safe clean drinking water for 42 million people. If the U.S. Coast Guard is unable to fulfill its emergency response duties, then our Great Lakes waters are even more at risk from a potential Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline spill,” Learner said.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email request for comment.

The National Wildlife Federation is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit with over 690,000 members dedicated to the protection of wildlife, navigable waters and other natural resources from oil spills.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center is a Midwest-based environmental advocacy nonprofit.


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