Oil and water….and bliss

There are two old expressions that came to mind as I read and thought about an article in the news recently (hang tight, I’ll tell you what they are shortly), an article about…

The Straits of Mackinac.

An area of natural beauty where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron connect.  An area where the past and the present have rubbed together in unexpected ways few would expect, fewer would have anticipated.

The Great Lakes have been a bastion of industry for many, many years, although most have forgotten just how industrial they used to be. Many places suffer from amnesia of past development.  The Lakes and many other areas were the beneficiaries of construction and development projects.  Many of those projects have faded into memory….. even as the projects themselves endured and hummed along in the current world.  Occasionally they blip on our radar screens for one reason or another.  It’s a wide gamut of projects that fall into this category.  Bridges that were built long before current standards in highway design and construction.  Tunnels created before seismic analysis was born.  Dams for power and flood control erected before current materials and processes.  Utilities installed, and forgotten as they continue to operate through their normal life and beyond.

In the Great Lakes, an oil pipeline exists, running through the Strait.  Each day, it has moved thousands and thousand of barrels of oil through the pipe, under one of our more unique aquatic creations.  Industry continued to receive the oil, operators continued to operate the pipeline.  And for everyone it faded into the background, unremembered, invisible, silent.  A tube of metal under the water.  A sixty-year old tube of metal running under the water.

And oil and water don’t mix (see, I told you I’d get to the old expressions).

The response to the discovery of this pipeline, or more properly the re-acknowledgement of the pipeline, has generated a not-unexpected amount of heat and vitriol between those who operate and use the pipe line, and those who demand that it be shut down because it could be a hazard to the water of the Lakes.  A potential hazard that has been there for 60 years.  A potential unrealized for sixty years, laying there unremembered, unknown, blissfully unaware.

“When ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise” (that was the second one).

Interestingly, to the environmentalist in me, is the question of how this situation and challenge will be viewed by the operator, the government, the people.  For I look at it as an interesting risk problem.  The pipe is 60 years old, operating with all the characteristics of an artery.  Fluids pumped through it, water pressure over top of it, corrosion possibilities inside and out.  Clearly it will need to be replaced, clearly it will need maintenance, because NO system lasts forever.

But shutting the pipeline down poses risks on more than one front.  The fluids pumping through the line are part of the status quo of how it handles the physical stresses of its environment.  Stop, or even slow, the pumps and capacity of the line and the pipe may very well shift, rupture or buckle.  At the same time, the alternative ways of transporting the oil– by boat or tanker-trucks — are potentially more dangerous.  Weather on the Lakes is dangerous and dicey (as everyone knows from “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”), making shipping a potential spill not out-of-the-question.  Trucks are even worse, especially when given the numbers that would be involved.  And yet…something must be done.  The pipe is sixty years old.  At some point, as age and corrosion and stress increase, it will slowly or catastrophically fail if nothing is done.  It will have to be refurbished, restored, or replaced, and the new risks evaluated.

Quietly it has operated for six decades without spill or accident or incident. Operated in the background, ignored.  Until now.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by hmunro on January 16, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Wow, Jeff … great piece. I’d never stopped to consider the pipeline’s age before, or the stresses it’s under, and especially not the risks of trying to repair/replace it. I hope wise heads will prevail (instead of the cost-cutting bozos who usually make these decisions) because we really can’t afford to ruin the Great Lakes with an oil spill.


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