TRAVERSE CITY — A crowd of more than 150 closely listened to officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and Grand Traverse Metro Fire discuss the what-ifs of oil spills and hazardous material emergencies in freshwater.
The threat in the Straits of Mackinac of petrochemical spills from the underwater Line 5 dual pipelines owned by Enbridge was specifically discussed at Friday’s 12th annual Freshwater Summit in Traverse City, along with other types of spills like overturned oil tankers in Great Lakes waters.
Steven Keck, emergency management and force readiness chief for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sault Sainte Marie sector, talked about available technology for oil spill response in the Upper Great Lakes, along with the challenges of the rural nature of the area.
Keck said the Guard’s toolbox includes: thermal imaging cameras to track petrochemicals in water; water cannons to “herd” such chemicals toward containment booms; drones to track pollutants’ movement through water; submerged live-stream cameras; remotely operated underwater vehicles; high-definition radar to track currents, ice floes and vessels; and, autonomous vehicles that work like underwater robotic vacuums.
However, Keck said perhaps the most effective method to clean up oil in water is what’s called in-situation burning.
“It’s literally lighting oil on fire,” he said.
A good recovery rate for oil skimmers is about 40 percent, Keck said, while in-situation burns average around 90 percent recovery of spilled petrochemicals.
He said in-situation burns are not pre-authorized on the Great Lakes and therefore require authorization. Further testing of the effects of the method are underway in Alabama, where he said drones are flown into smoke plumes to measure emissions.
Keck said wintertime ice coverage is another major challenge when it comes to any oil spill response in the Straits of Mackinac, not that it can’t be done.
Ann Rogers, co-chairwoman for Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, said she remains unconvinced the Guard is truly prepared for a potential Line 5 spill.
That’s especially so because of the rapidly-changing nature of weather conditions in the Straits of Mackinac.
“I still have a lot of fear,” she said. “This is their mission, but they’ve been handed something beyond what they can take care of. Technology is great, but the environment there is unpredictable.”
Rogers also said prevention efforts are better than later cleanup in any circumstance.
Keck said other challenges in the Upper Great Lakes region include a narrow channel for ships to travel through the St. Marys River, along with vast swaths along U.S. Highway 2 in the Upper Peninsula where there are minimal services available for large-scale spill response — plus it’s a challenge to triage in such valuable natural zones, he said.
“It’s a hugely environmentally sensitive area,” Keck said. “It’s difficult to prioritize when everything is a priority.”
He also argued the need for training local emergency responders how to manage hazardous material spills because it can take hours for Coast Guard officials to respond to some of the most far-flung places like Beaver Island and the furthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula.
That need was echoed by Lt. Adam Drewery, HAZMAT leader for Grant Traverse Metro Emergency Services Authority, who also spoke during the summit at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City.
The only HAZMAT teams in northern Michigan are found in Traverse City, Gaylord and the far western part of the Upper Peninsula, Drewery said.
He said that means the Traverse City-based teams can be called to spills hours away, anywhere from Big Rapids to the heart of the Upper Peninsula. In fact, a Line 5 spill would almost certainly involve the Traverse City hazardous materials teams, Drewery said.
Required training is expensive and time-consumptive, he said, which is another challenge. Many fire and emergency response departments simply don’t have the financial resources to prepare this way, Drewery said.
Ralph Bednarz of rural Traverse City, a summit attendee, raised his hand to ask about response plans for oil and gas wellheads which are so abundant across the region.
He wanted to know how wellhead fires are extinguished without the benefit of firefighting foam that contains PFAS.
PFAS is an acronym for a family of man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, now considered a worldwide emerging contaminant after decades of common use of the substances in a vast variety of products, including in military, industrial and manufacturing processes. Firefighting foams for petrochemical blazes were among primary uses for the chemicals.
“There are foams out there that are safe that do not contain PFAS, which are for those types of fires,” Drewery said.
The lieutenant also said Grand Traverse Metro has swapped out all its firefighting foam for the new type without the harmful chemicals.
Other topics discussed during Friday’s freshwater summit include climate change, water quality monitoring programs, Great Lakes water levels, aerial shoreline surveys, invasive species and septic system contamination.