Public pressure is mounting to decommission two 63-year-old underwater pipelines that rest in an environmentally sensitive waterway between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
About 540,000 barrels of oil and liquid natural gas flow daily through the 20-inch pipelines, called Line 5, which lie in an exposed trench on the public bottomlands of the Mackinac Straits west of the Mackinac Bridge.
Built in 1953, Line 5 is now owned by the Alberta, Canada-based petroleum company Enbridge, Inc. Many fear the aging pipeline is an accident waiting to happen, with recent modeling showing a single oil spill could impact more than 150 miles of coastline.
Enbridge has been boasting about the findings of a state pipeline safety task force report released a little over a year ago that found no signs of internal or external corrosion on Line 5.
What the company doesn’t say is that even the authors of the report aren’t convinced of its validity, due to “gaps” in information provided by Enbridge on its own pipelines.
“Substantial questions remain and can only be resolved by full disclosure of additional information, and rigorous, independent review by qualified experts,” the 2015 report reads.
In a press conference following the release of the report, Michigan’s Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) director Dan Wyant said Enbridge had not been forthcoming about the methods of pipeline integrity inspections performed by its contractors.
Enbridge says it continually monitors metal loss, cracks, and pipeline movements, and in some cases sends divers to visually inspect the pipelines.
The company maintains the pipelines could operate safely for another half-century, though it acknowledges that a heavy crust of invasive mussels cover parts of the pipelines.
Environmental groups claim these invasive species are likely corroding the pipeline coating.
Line 5’s Days Numbered
Enbridge has been trying to assure the public through a series of barbeques and community gatherings that Line 5 is completely safe.
Schuette said in 2015 that Line 5’s days “are numbered,” and that the pipeline would never be built today under modern environmental standards. Gov. Rick Snyder promised to address recommendations included in the report quickly.
But critics say the state has been anything but quick to respond to the concerns about Line 5. A pair of independent studies that could lead to recommendations on Line 5’s future are planned but won’t be completed until mid-to-late 2017.
“The state has been studying (Line 5) since 2014, using data from the company,” Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter Chair, David Holtz, tells DeSmog.
Holtz says an independent third party assessment of Line 5 would probably refute the company’s claims that everything is fine.
“There is no real deadline for the state to do anything and no political will to confront the oil industry,” Holtz says.
Environmental lawyers say the governor and the attorney general have the authority to decommission the pipeline at any time as part of the 1953 easement agreement that granted the original owner of Line 5, Lakehead Pipe Line Partners, the right to occupy the bottomlands.
Liz Kirkwood, an environmental attorney and director of the Traverse City-based nonprofit Flow for Water, tells DeSmog that Michigan faces all of the risks from Line 5 and gets almost none of the benefit.
She said, “The state of Michigan agreed to never allow private interests to pollute public trust waters. Michigan has a heavy burden here because 20 percent of the world’s fresh water is in lakes bordering the state.”
Concerns were galvanized earlier this year when University of Michigan computer modeling was released showing that 152 miles of shoreline on Lakes Huron and Michigan were at risk from a single Line 5 oil spill.
Environmentalists and citizens in the region bring up the company’s 2010 pipeline break — the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history — as an example of what could happen.
In July, Enbridge agreed to pay $177 million, including $61 million in penalties, as part of a consent decree with the U.S. government tied to the company’s 2010 pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan. The spill affected nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge did not admit negligence in the rupture.
In a poll released by the National Wildlife Foundation in May, nearly two-thirds of Michiganders said companies should not be allowed to operate pipelines running under the Great Lakes.
A majority of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized Native American tribes have passed resolutions opposing Line 5, and the Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians said Line 5 threatens the sovereign rights of tribal members to fish the lakes.
More than 50 municipalities across Michigan — liberal, conservative, and everything in-between — have passed resolutions calling for all pipelines operating in the Straits of Mackinac to be shut down.
Calls for Risk Reduction
On September 14, the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign sent a letter to Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board co-chairs Heidi Grether and Valerie Brader, urging the panel to endorse four actions before an independent study commences. Their requests were to:
- Require Enbridge to shut down the flow of oil in Line 5 in the Straits during the winter months, when ice and strong currents make oil capture nearly impossible.
- Investigate at least eight alleged violations by Enbridge of easement requirements for operating Line 5 in the Straits, including pipeline corrosion.
- Require Enbridge to hire an independent contractor to evaluate Line 5 before installing anchors that would keep the pipeline from popping out of its trench.
- Have the Michigan DEQ conduct a full environmental review of Line 5 under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act before issuing a permit to Enbridge to install 18 additional pipeline anchors.
Those recommendations were brought up by board member Craig Hupp of Grosse Pointe when the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board met on Monday night, September 19.
But according to the Environmental Council’s spokesperson Andy McGlashen, most of the two-hour meeting was spent discussing how to ease public fears about the difficulty of cleaning up oil spills in the winter and just paid “lip service” to the recommendations. “The board basically said they didn’t have the technical expertise to evaluate those recommendations,” McGlashen told DeSmog, adding that the board adjourned without a plan to find technical experts or take any action before its next meeting on December 12.
Enbridge, like other companies operating pipelines, has pointed out that the alternative ways of moving oil — by rail and by truck — are even less safe, and that decommissioning Line 5 would ultimately increase the risk of oil spills or explosions.
Holtz tells DeSmog he thinks the company’s line of reasoning is bogus, saying, “There are other pipelines in the region that aren’t under water. Line 5 is just a shortcut. Line 5 is Enbridge’s problem. It shouldn’t be Michigan’s problem.”