MTU’s Meadows updates state officials on Line 5 risk analysis

LANSING — Michigan Technological University’s Guy Meadows provided details on the progress of a proposal for an independent risk analysis of oil pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac at Monday’s meeting of the state Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

Meadows, Robbins Professor of Sustainable Marine Engineering and director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Tech, outlined for the PSAB the structure of the team that would perform the analysis, as well as a projected timeline for delivering the final report.In his presentation, Meadows outlined a team of 41 researchers from nine universities and other organizations, and estimated that the final risk analysis report could be delivered in August 2018.

Guy Meadows

Meadows and the team intend to submit their proposal to the State of Michigan within the next few weeks.

“If the State accepts our proposal, we’ll have a matter of months in which to complete our analysis,” Meadows said. “This is an impressive team of experts, and I have no doubt we’re up to the task.”

PSAB Recommendation

On Sept. 18, the PSAB unanimously recommended that Michigan Tech organize and lead state universities in an independent risk analysis of the Line 5 Straits pipelines, two parallel 20-inch pipelines that form the 4.5-mile section of Line 5 that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. In conducting the risk analysis, Michigan Tech, state universities and other collaborators would analyze the environmental and economic impacts of a “worst-case scenario” spill or release.

Enbridge, the Canadian oil and gas firm that owns Line 5, has paid the state for the analysis, but will have no control over the results. When the final report is issued, the state will require Enbridge to maintain an adequate financial assurance mechanism to cover liability for all damages or losses to public and private property in the event of a worst-case scenario. The state has the authority to do so under the 1953 easement that granted permission for the pipelines’ construction.

Team and Timeline

In his presentation to the PSAB, Meadows described a team of 41 researchers — 21 from Michigan Tech and 20 from other organizations. Nine universities are contributing to the analysis, and seven of those nine are within the state of Michigan. Besides Michigan Tech, state institutions participating are the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Oakland University. Also participating are North Dakota State University and Loyola University-Chicago.

Three researchers on the project are from consulting organizations, and two are independent contractors. Two other contributors, both from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, will donate their time and services.

Meadows will serve as project lead, with the team organized into nine sections based on the published scope of work. Each section will have a section leader, a chief scientist and at least two section authors. In addition to the nine sections, a “broader impacts” team will provide a comprehensive overview of risks that various affected communities perceive in connection with the Straits pipelines. Affected groups include indigenous communities; local, state, federal and Canadian government officials; environmental and historic preservation groups; and tourism, fishing and recreation industries.

The risk analysis team will use Michigan Tech’s high-performance computing cluster to run high-resolution hydrodynamic models for Lakes Michigan and Huron to predict the fate and transport of worst-case spills. Researchers will also develop a multi-layer, web-based geographic information system (GIS) portal to accumulate output from each team. This portal will be made available to the state upon completion of the risk analysis to serve as a rapid response resource inventory.

Meadows and the team plan to incorporate feedback from the PSAB and the state’s technical team and submit a final proposal by Dec. 15, with the goal of establishing a contract in early January. Barring any setbacks, the team would complete a draft risk analysis in May and hold a public presentation on the draft report in early June, followed by a 30-day public comment period. After responding to public and state input on the draft, the team would prepare a final report to be delivered by Aug. 30.

First Things First

Of course, before the analysis can begin, the state of Michigan needs to accept the team’s proposal and enter into a contract. Meadows expects there will be a short period of negotiation, but is hopeful that the analysis will be underway by mid-January.

“Our goal is to provide unbiased scientific information so that decision-makers are armed to make the best decision possible,” Meadows says. “Michigan Tech is uniquely positioned because of our past research on the Great Lakes and the Straits. We know we need to lead on this, and we have accepted the challenge.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences.

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