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Court Rules Feds Erred in Approving Spill Response Plan for Oil Pipeline under Great Lakes

Court affirms National Wildlife Federation position that agency overseeing pipeline safety failed to assess impacts to wildlife, environment, adequacy of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 spill response plan.

Ann Arbor, MI – The federal agency charged with overseeing oil pipeline safety should not have approved a spill response plan for an oil pipeline under the Great Lakes, according to a court decision issued Friday, in a case brought by the National Wildlife Federation. Judge Mark Goldsmith of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan affirmed the National Wildlife Federation’s position that the approval of Enbridge Energy’s oil spill response plans for its oil pipeline that runs through Michigan and Wisconsin and under the Straits of Mackinac—known as Line 5—was faulty and inadequate.

“The court could not be more clear: The failure to account for potential impacts to wildlife and the environment violated the law,” said Oday Salim, staff attorney for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center. “The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration erred by not conducting an environmental assessment, nor consulting with agencies about impacts to protected species. Without these steps, there is simply no way for the government or the public to know whether there are sufficient protections for the Great Lakes and the communities which rely on them. Given Enbridge Energy’s poor track record and the fact that this pipeline travels directly through the heart of the Great Lakes, this assessment is particularly important.”

The decision requires the federal agency charged with overseeing oil pipelines – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) – to prepare an environmental assessment, account for endangered species, and be more specific in considering whether Enbridge Energy has an adequate oil spill response plan for Line 5. The ruling exposes the weaknesses in federal regulations intended to protect rivers, lakes, and streams from oil spills.

“This ruling confirms what we’ve known for years – Enbridge is not prepared for an oil spill, and the federal government is not doing enough to protect the Great Lakes,” said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes partnerships manager for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center. “Now more than ever we need leadership at the state level to exercise its right as a Great Lakes trustee and put an end to the risks that Line 5 poses. This risky pipeline needs to be decommissioned.”

Oil spill response plans allow the federal government and the public to know the potential impacts of an oil spill and to assess whether response efforts will be sufficient to contain and ultimately clean up the damage. In 2015, the National Wildlife Federation sued the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for its approvals of Enbridge’s Line 5 response plans. The National Wildlife Federation argued that the agency violated the law in two key ways. First, PHMSA concluded that the response plans met the legal criteria without explaining how or why, in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. Second, it approved the plans without conducting an environmental assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and without consulting with relevant agencies about potential impacts to protected species as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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