The National Wildlife Federation accused the U.S. Transportation Department on Tuesday of not enforcing a federal law that requires pipeline owners and operators to establish safety response plans for worst-case oil spills in lakes, rivers and other waterways.
Leaders of the conservation organization said it filed the required "intent to sue" notice through certified mail, giving officials 60 days to issue regulations or face a federal lawsuit.
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While the pipelines that spurred the group's action are two side-by-side conduits under the Straits of Mackinac — the 5-mile-wide waterway that connects Lakes Michigan and Huron in Michigan — the National Wildlife Federation said there are about 5,000 pipeline crossings of waters in the U.S. that would be affected.
"The impact is the same anywhere there are crossings of navigable waters," said Mike Shriberg, regional executive director of the organization's Great Lakes Regional Center. "This is about spill response, and we've seen it over and over again. It's a critical problem."
Transportation officials did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The 20-inch pipes below the Straits transport nearly 23 million gallons of oil a day as part of a 1,900-mile network that originates in North Dakota near the Canadian border. One 645-mile-long segment slices through northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula before ducking beneath the Straits of Mackinac and ending in Sarnia, Ontario.
It is run by Canada-based Enbridge Energy Partners, the same company whose pipeline in southwestern Michigan released more than 800,000 gallons of oil into a river system in 2010.
Citing Transportation Department data, the conservation group said there were about 10,800 pipeline spills and other incidents in the U.S. between 1995 and 2014.
Neil Kagan, National Wildlife Federation senior counsel, said the group was looking closely at the Enbridge pipeline when it learned there was no response plan available for the pipes in and under the Straits.
Such a plan is required for pipelines that "travel in, on, or under rivers, lakes, and other inland navigable waters" under the Oil Pollution Act, said Shriberg. That law was passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster that resulted in millions of gallons of crude being leaked in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Thousands of miles of coastline were affected and hundreds of thousands of animals died.
The Oil Pollution Act defines a worst-case discharge to mean the largest foreseeable discharge in adverse weather conditions, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Enbridge declined to comment Tuesday on the National Wildlife Federation's action, saying it does not directly involve the company. Spokesman Michael Barnes told The AP that Enbridge has detailed emergency response plans in place, which have been submitted to federal officials.
"Enbridge has plans for each operating region, as well as a specific plan for the Straits," Barnes said. "In addition, we routinely conduct drills with both state and federal agencies to ensure those plans are current and effective. We take safety seriously."
A task force led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been looking at the Straits pipelines for about a year and has recommended state approval of an Enbridge spill response plan. Lawmakers are reviewing the task force report.
"It should happen under the state's guidance," Shriberg said. "We know the Department of Transportation has not been doing its job so far."