First fuel shipments in a decade leave Port of Milwaukee this spring, raising concerns

Source: By Lee Bergquist, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2018

It’s a development that brings a new source of business to the Port of Milwaukee but also raises concerns about environmental threats to the harbor and Lake Michigan:

Ethanol is being shipped out of the port this spring — the first time either ethanol or petroleum products have moved out of the port in at least a decade, according to port officials.

Appleton-based U.S. Oil loaded its first shipment of 100,000 barrels of ethanol on April 30 — a barge bound for Canada from a newly refurbished liquid cargo pier that juts 2,000 feet into the harbor, in the shadow of the Hoan Bridge.

The $3.6 million upgrade to the pier — subsidized with a $2.9 million state harbor assistance grant — has the capability to move ethanol and petroleum products, including crude oil.

The pier’s gleaming white pipelines are connected to U.S. Oil’s storage tanks and facilities on Jones Island where liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, is also stored. The company’s lease agreement with the port also allows for construction of a plant that scraps old tires and converts them into energy.

The startup of ethanol shipments — and the possibility that petroleum products could follow — worries environmental groups. So does the tire plant.

“Is this what we want for our port, and our lakes?” asked Eric Hansen of the local chapter of the Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, a Midwest group that is tracking rail shipments of crude oil, some of which moves through Milwaukee.

RELATED: Michigan, Enbridge agree to change operation of two aging pipelines in Straits of Mackinac

Crude oil is currently not shipped over the Great Lakes, although some crude moves through the St. Lawrence Seaway, according to experts.

There is also growing attention being paid to the integrity of an oil pipeline under the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan that is owned by Enbridge Inc., which also operates a pipeline system in Wisconsin.

U.S. Oil is a subsidiary of U.S. Venture, a privately held distributor of oil, ethanol, lubricants, tires and auto parts. At one time, the company had entertained plans to ship crude on the lakes.

But a company spokeswoman said that it no longer has such plans; and in fact, the city amended its lease agreement with U.S.Venture in September prohibiting crude oil storage or shipping at the port.

“We thought that was a big win,” said Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, an environmental group. “But ethanol is a new potential source of pollution and we want to make sure that all precautions are taken.”

U.S. Venture’s Alison Fiebig said the company has no plans to move LPG over the lake. She also said there are no current plans for a tire-to-energy facility along Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The company’s interest, she said, is shipping ethanol safely over the Great Lakes to Ontario and Quebec, where domestic supplies can’t meet demand for renewable fuel additives to gasoline.

About 16% of the 1.7 billion gallons of ethanol exported in 2017 moved through Great Lakes ports, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

“What is oftentimes overlooked is that we are helping Wisconsin corn growers when it comes to ethanol and that’s a really great story — to help them be more competitive by transporting some of the corn crop to Canada,” Fiebig said.

The company has shipped ethanol over the lakes from the port of Green Bay for six years without incident, she said, a mode of transport that limits the number of ethanol-laden trucks on freeways.

In the event of an accident, ethanol quickly mixes in the lake. The environmental threat is loss of oxygen in water where the spill occurs.  A 2011 report by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality also indicated that ethanol can still be flammable in water.

The immediate response: Control the spill, guard water intake pipes and protect fish and birds in near-shore areas, said Lieutenant Commander Bryan Swintek of the U.S. Coast Guard in Milwaukee.

He said U.S. Oil was required to file a response plan with the Coast Guard, and identify contractors who can respond immediately to an accident.

“They have a very robust response plan,” Swintek said. “Clearly, they want to make sure they are operating in a safe manner.”

Hansen, the environmentalist, said he still has questions. “We see safety plans that everybody says works well, and then one day they don’t work so well,” he said.

Hansen does not believe there is enough known about oversight of such shipments, whether there are protocols during inclement weather and what the company’s long-term plans are for Jones Island.

Fiebig said her company expects to make three to seven shipments to Canada a year. “Not very frequently,” she said.

That could change. A Canadian expert, who in a study last year mapped environmentally risky areas from petroleum shipments, said he foresees increased petroleum shipping of all kinds on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

“When we look at the trends, we see increased activity,” said Jerome Marty, a biologist and project director at the Council of Canadian Academies.

“Quebec Province is putting together a maritime strategy to use the St. Lawrence more than it has,” Marty said. “It’s really an important highway to connect to the Atlantic.”