TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — An environmental group sued the federal government Thursday, contending it gives pipeline owners and operators a free pass on developing legally required plans for dealing with oil spills into lakes, rivers and other inland waterways.
The National Wildlife Federation lawsuit accuses the U.S. Department of Transportation of failing for 20 years to issue regulations on crafting the spill strategies and of allowing companies to operate without them. The plans were ordered under the Oil Pollution Act, which was enacted in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez disaster, and were supposed to be finished by 1995.
"The Department of Transportation's failure to review or approve spill response plans is a huge oversight that has left communities and wildlife vulnerable to catastrophic spills," said Neil Kagan, senior counsel for the federation.
The department referred a request for comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which said it would review the lawsuit but had no further comment.
The Department of Transportation last week proposed tightening safety rules for pipelines carrying crude oil and other hazardous liquids, including requiring operators to inspect lines in rural areas now exempt and to report problems with smaller, currently unregulated lines.
The wildlife federation, which filed suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit, said those steps don't address what happens after pipeline incidents occur. The Oil Pollution Act requires plans that make sure pipeline operators have enough resources available to remove as much oil as possible during a "worst case" spill and limit damage to public health and the environment, including fish, wildlife, shorelines and beaches.
But the department has yet to approve any such plans, the suit said. It asks the court to set a schedule for them to be submitted and reviewed, and to order the department to issue necessary regulations.
Pipelines carrying oil products or hazardous liquids cross inland waters at least 100 feet wide at 5,110 places nationwide, the suit said. It said the pipeline agency has identified 20 accidents at inland water crossings between 1991 and 2012. Two spills in recent years have sent more than 100,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. In Michigan, a ruptured pipeline in 2010 released 840,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River and a creek.
The wildlife federation and other environmental groups also have warned of risks from twin pipelines running beneath the Straits of Mackinac, the nearly 5-mile-wide waterway linking Lakes Huron and Michigan. Enbridge Energy Partners LP, which operates the 62-year-old lines, has said they are inspected regularly and pose no threat.
"The oil pipeline industry's track record of spills, accidents and disasters underscores the need for iron-clad protections," said Mike Shriberg, executive director of the federation's Great Lakes Regional Center.