Judge Clears Government in Case of Aging Michigan Pipeline

The Mackinac Bridge in Michigan.

DETROIT (CN) — Dealing a setback to environmentalists who want assurance that pipelines have proper response plans for catastrophic oil spills, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the National Wildlife Federation lacks standing to challenge the U.S. Department of Transportation’s approval process.

Environmentalists have long raised concerns that the Great Lakes are vulnerable to a massive oil spill that could choke hundreds of miles of shoreline and endanger protected fish and wildlife. But U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith on Tuesday rejected the National Wildlife Federation’s claims under the Clean Water Act.

National Wildlife Federation regional executive director Mike Shriberg said his group was considering its options but did not indicate if it will appeal.

“This decision leaves communities across the country no safer today from risky oil pipelines. While we assess our next step, one thing is clear: We are going to continue to stand up for our iconic rivers, lakes and streams — as well as communities, fish and wildlife, and economy,” Shriberg said in a statement.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The National Wildlife Federation claimed in January that in the past 20 years the Department of Transportation neglected to make sure that operators craft sound response plans to deal with worst-case scenario spills.

Targeting an oil pipeline called Line 5, submerged just west of the famous Mackinac Bridge, the group said the agency’s lack of oversight of pipelines in navigable water was of concern to Michiganders and the entire county, and that the agency had approved oil pipelines across the country without adequate oil spill response plans.

Of immediate concern is the 641-mile Line 5 pipeline, which winds under the Straits of Mackinac at the intersection of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and is operated by Canadian oil giant Enbridge Energy.

The Department of Transportation in 2015 approved Enbridge’s response plans for the pipeline, which carries up to 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids each day from Wisconsin through Michigan and into Canada.

The National Wildlife Federation said in court filings that even though the government created protections after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Department of Transportation never established rules for pipelines that run under rivers, lakes or other inland waters, treating them as land operations. The federation said those approvals violated the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

The federal government claims the Line 5 pipelines are interconnected on land and water and properly regulated as operating onshore.

Judge Goldsmith on Tuesday sided with the government without reaching the merits of National Wildlife Federation’s claims.

He found the agency’s regulations were equivalent to those provided by federal environmental laws, and the federation had failed to show how a rule change would have affected the outcome of the government’s decision to approve the pipeline.

“Further, the onshore regulations that were utilized expressly cover navigable waters. For example, the regulations expressly account for worst-case discharges that occur from segments of a facility that cross navigable waters,” Goldsmith wrote.

He granted summary judgment for the government and rejected the federation’s motion to end the case without a trial.

Enbridge has a tainted reputation in Michigan. One of its pipelines ruptured in July 2010, sending more than 1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. The company reached a $75 million settlement with the state and agreed to pay $177 million in penalties, but the much older Line 5 has been a continual concern of environmental groups, who want regulators to shut it down.

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