June 14, 2021

Pipeline Profit Risks Our Future

Guest Opinion
By Barbara Stamiris | May 1, 2021

The 1950s were a heyday for civil engineering. To fuel our growth, we built what was then the world's longest suspension bridge to connect Michigan's peninsulas and an oil pipeline in the waters below. The Mighty Mac is still the pride of Michigan. Under the watchful eye of the state's Mackinac Bridge Authority, it has won awards for engineering and for preventive maintenance. In 2019 it became "the first fully instrumented bridge in the country using advanced wireless and self-powered monitoring technology" to prevent failure. 
The oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac is a different story. Owned by a foreign oil company and mostly self-monitored, Line 5 has become a disaster waiting to happen. Experts have called the Straits the worst place in the nation for an oil pipeline. Its volatile currents washed away Line 5's bottomland support, requiring the installation of remedial support structures in 2002. When the pipeline moved within the H-shaped supports, the pipeline's safety coatings were scraped off — a new problem that Enbridge hid. Today, Line 5, which crosses a busy shipping lane, is suspended between 200 support structures, subjecting it to unanticipated vibration and bending stresses, as well as to anchor strikes. 

Given its age, condition, and location, Line 5 has become the most dangerous pipeline in the U.S. while the amount of energy Michigan uses from it has diminished drastically. Today, about 95 percent of Line 5’s oil and propane liquids go directly to Sarnia. Without adequate insurance from Enbridge Inc., Michigan bears the risk while the company earns $1 to $2 million each day Line 5 operates. Billion-dollar profits could be the reason Enbridge pushes Line 5 so far beyond its intended 50-year lifetime. 

After 68 years, even Enbridge acknowledges that Line 5 must be replaced. It proposes building a new line in a tunnel below the still-functioning Line 5. Tunnel expert Brian O’Mara warns of an inferior design, inadequate boring samples, and potential sinkholes due to poor geologic conditions, which could lead to catastrophe. 

Building a tunnel would not only endanger Line 5; it would commit Michigan to 99 more years of fossil fuels during a climate emergency. Michigan's goal is to be carbon neutral by 2050; not to own an oil tunnel we don't need. Furthermore, a tunnel for the four-mile Straits section of Line 5 ignores its remaining 641 land miles stretching across Michigan, where a million gallons of oil have spilled in 33 accidents already. Putting one new link in an old chain makes no sense.  

Neither does ignoring Enbridge’s track record. In 2020, Enbridge was fined $6.7 million for repeated safety violations by the EPA. In 2010, warning alarms were ignored for 17 hours while Enbridge Line 6B spilled a million gallons of oil. It cost Enbridge $1.2 billion to clean up 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River. By comparison, an accident in the Great Lakes could destroy 700 miles of shoreline and spill a million gallons of oil every hour. 

Gov. Whitmer vowed to protect the Great Lakes. Because Enbridge's Line 5 safety violations endangered them, she revoked its 1953 easement. She gave the company and state of Michigan six months — until May 12, 2021 — to develop a prudent decommissioning plan. Enbridge has announced it will defy her shutdown order, instead suing to keep Line 5 operating until the tunnel is completed — a project estimated to take 5–10 years. If Line 5 is allowed to operate while its future is litigated, delay becomes a lucrative strategy for Enbridge. 

With so much at stake, Enbridge advertising uses fear not fact. It falsely represents how Michigan will suffer if Line 5 is shut down. The tunnel jobs that Enbridge touts are temporary; few are for Michigan workers. Michigan’s energy needs are not in jeopardy. Upper Peninsula propane dealers have had time to prepare alternatives, and the Michigan Propane Security Plan protects against price gouging and safeguards consumer interests. 

With a May shutdown looming, the Canadian government has joined the chorus opposing Whitmer and pressuring President Biden about job losses in Sarnia. The governor needs citizen support — now.

In the unlikely event that the Mackinac Bridge failed, the Great Lakes would not be in danger. A failure of Line 5, however, would be devastating. Given the age and condition of the pipeline and Enbridge’s track record of violations, failure is likely. Risking the world's largest freshwater system for corporate profit dismisses the needs of the citizens of Michigan, the U.S., and the world — to whom these waters belong.

The Anishinaabek, whose land and water this was, believe that every decision made today must consider the next seven generations to come. 

The water is not ours alone, but Michigan citizens are the ones who must protect it today, for tomorrow.  

Barbara Stamiris is an environmental activist living in Traverse City. To join the citizen coalition against Line 5, see oilandwaterdontmix.org.  

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