Michigan environmentalists rally to close aging oil pipelines under Mackinac Straits

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

PipelineProtest3Tourists driving over the Mackinac Bridge to camp or fish in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this Labor Day weekend won’t see it, but monsters lie in wait below the waterway that connects Lakes Michigan and Huron. Enbridge’s Line 5, two 62-year-old oil pipelines that transport nearly 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day, are buried under the Straits.

Environmentalists, activists, citizens and a growing number of Michigan policymakers worry that if the pipelines were to rupture and spill oil directly into the world’s largest freshwater resource, the damage could decimate aquatic ecosystems, local economies and the tourism industry. One in five Michigan jobs are tied, directly or indirectly, to safe and clean water.

In fact, a 2014 study by the University of Michigan called the Straits “the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes” and depicted the prospect of a plume from a million-gallon oil spill in the Straits stretching for 85 miles — from Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island to Mackinac Island, to Rogers City and down the Lake Huron shoreline.

Worries of an oil spill in the Mackinac Straits are exacerbated by painful memories of a catastrophic 2010 pipeline spill, when 1 million gallons of heavy diluted bitumen “Tar Sands” crude flowed into the Kalamazoo River watershed. Line 6B in southern Michigan is also owned by the Canadian company Enbridge. That spill — the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history — took four years and $1.2 billion to clean up.

Enbridge’s oil pipelines in the Mackinac Straits are about 20 years older than its failed Kalamazoo pipeline. (The company claims, however, that it does not, nor does it have plans to, ship more corrosive, heavy crude through the Straits.) A spill directly into the Great Lakes would be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, to contain and clean up.

Opposition to the Line 5 pipelines has quickly become the pinnacle struggle for many Michigan environmentalists, including local organizations such as the Groundwork Center, FLOW (For Love of Water) and Circle of Blue, which have signed onto the “Oil & Water Don’t Mix Coalition”.

As such, those same tourists driving over the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day weekend won’t see buried oil pipelines, but they will see a flotilla of kayakers and standup paddle boarders on Sunday, Sept. 6, taking to the Straits to protest the pipeline. Similar demonstrations against Line 5 have, in the past, featured environmental luminaries such as 350.org leader Bill McKibben. On July 30, protestors rallied at the State Capitol in Lansing to encourage Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette to shut down the pipelines.

On July 14, the state’s Michigan Petroleum Task Force report gave the campaign hope when it declared that the pipelines pose a “clear and present danger to public health and safety, and the environment.”

“Attorney General Schuette has said that the ‘days are numbered,’ for the Straits oil pipelines,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes law, policy and education center in Traverse City. “The task force report did a great job defining the problem. But how many days will it be before Mr. Schuette and the state take action to protect the Great Lakes and Michigan? They say they have the authority, and we say they should act now. The threat from those pipelines only grows by the day.”

“If you believe these existing pipelines pose an immediate threat to the Great Lakes — and we do — the task force recommendations amount to a rearranging of deck chairs on Michigan’s Titanic of oil pipelines,” said David Holtz from Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists applaud the task force report for finding that, if it so chooses, the state does have the jurisdiction and power to eventually shut down Line 5. More broadly, the report establishes a framework to determine whether the transport of oil through the pipelines under the 5-mile long Straits segment is prudent or justified, especially when it appears other pipelines or routes could deliver the oil to markets without endangering the Great Lakes and the public and private uses that depend on them.

The report also deems it necessary to prevent the transportation of heavy crude oil through the Straits Pipelines; require an independent risk analysis and adequate financial assurance for the Straits Pipelines; require an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing Straits Pipelines, and obtain additional information from Enbridge on personnel, products transported, inspections, and repairs.

The Oil & Water Don’t Mix Coalition spent much of the past year submitting reports and making presentations to the state task force. A report published in April by FLOW identified grave structural concerns related to corrosion, welding and coating failures, and invasive quagga mussel impacts weakening the steel pipelines.

“Emergency measures are needed, and they are needed now,” said FLOW expert Gary Street.

The campaign’s efforts and concerns regarding the Enbridge oil pipelines have attracted Midwest and national media coverage, including a prominent feature by CBS-TV in Detroit that ran just before 60 Minutes on Father’s Day, and helped push the pipelines into the top tier of Michigan’s most urgent environmental threats. Thousands of citizens, and dozens of environmental groups, businesses, Indian tribes, and communities have signed on to support the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign’s goal.

The local effort has included rally-the-citizens, informational sessions earlier this summer at a cottage on Big Glen Lake and at Betsie Bay Furniture in Frankfort. Yard signs opposing the Mackinac Straits pipeline now appear prominently throughout northern Michigan.

It’s unclear what a massive oil spill in the Straits would mean for Lake Michigan beaches down the coast in Leelanau and Benzie counties. Since the prevailing winds and currents push east, Lake Huron might fare worse. But FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood said that news reports of a pipeline spill, alone, would be catastrophic for the tourism industry.

“The idea of tourists knowing there’s been a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes literally will put a black stain on tourism and the regional economy,” she said. “That could be a real life or death issue for tourism, agricultural tourism, and our wineries and breweries. It took over three years for New York City’s economy to bounce back after 9/11 — even after the immediate danger was gone. Don’t forget that intangible.”