June 2, 2020

Why Risk Our Great Lakes?

By Barbara Stamiris | Aug. 4, 2018

The Great Lakes are being risked — unnecessarily. University of Michigan studies call the Straits of Mackinac the worst possible place for Line 5, yet it is the No. 1 option for Enbridge because Canadians have said no to pipelines across their own country.

Enbridge is determined to get Canada's oil to its East Coast markets via the Straits shortcut through Michigan. But there are other, safer options: Pipelines around the lakes, which Enbridge could use to move its oil to Sarnia (albeit less profitably), already exist. And a new propane line from Wisconsin would protect the U.P. from the impact of a Line 5 accident.

Michigan uses about 5 percent of the oil passing through our Straits. There is simply no need to risk the Great Lakes.

In 1953, Michigan granted an easement allowing the construction of Line 5. The benefits to Michigan that once justified Line 5 have drastically diminished as those of its owner have increased. Line 5 was expected to last 50 years; now Enbridge has said it can last “indefinitely."

In the many required studies of the last two years, the state has asked, “How can we move this oil more safely?” But the July risk analysis, like the others, erroneously assumes a need for Line 5.  As the DEQ explains, Snyder seeks "a safer alternative that maintains the important energy and communications infrastructure link between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.” But a "no pipeline" option has not been thoroughly analyzed or explored.

As a result, we hear about one plan after another for the Straits. The latest is to bury Line 5 in order to protect it from anchor strikes. Enbridge calls this plan Rock Armor but says, "There's no armor, it's just rocks, a lot of rocks." The added stress and difficulty of monitoring a buried pipeline make this proposal inherently unsafe.

The other plan is to build a tunnel. Governor Snyder overrode his own Pipeline Safety Advisory Board when he made a private plan with Enbridge for a tunnel to keep Line 5 going. The PSAB voted to shut down the pipeline until safety issues were addressed. We can't risk the seven more years Enbridge says it will take to build a tunnel. And why should Michigan approve a tunnel for Canada?

In April, 600 gallons of toxic fluid spilled into the Straits when electrical cables were struck by a tugboat anchor. Line 5, which was dented, carries about a million gallons of oil through the Straits each hour. A spring blizzard prevented immediate remedial action, like winter does, so this was a wake up call. In the absence of state action, the federal Pipeline Safety Administration stepped in to restrict the flow of oil due to Line 5 damage. The Risk Analysis Report, ordered by the state and issued just four months earlier, had ranked anchor strikes as the No. 1 threat to the pipeline. But rather than taking proactive steps to protect Great Lakes waters, Michigan and Enbridge are suing the tugboat owners.

Enbridge has such a vested interest in moving oil through Michigan, it can't be trusted to assess the integrity of Line 5. The company’s track record demonstrates this. Line 5 was intended to lie on the lakebed, but the powerful currents of the Straits have, over the decades, eroded the lakebed below the pipeline. The anchor supports put in place to remediate this problem have themselves caused new problems by scraping away safety coatings when currents cause the pipeline to rub against them. Enbridge withheld their knowledge of this damage. Yet today they are seeking approval to install 48 more anchor supports without the required environmental overview for such design changes. This piecemeal approach is intended to keep the pipeline operating by avoiding overall independent assessment by today's standards.

A spill from Line 5 is estimated to cause from $2 to $6 billion in damages to Michigan's economy. Enbridge spent over $1 billion to clean up 30 miles of a Kalamazoo River when line 6b ruptured in 2010, yet it has less insurance for a Line 5 spill that would affect up to 700 miles of shoreline. Who bears the risk? Michigan taxpayers. When repairing Line 6b, Enbridge decided to double its capacity. If a tunnel is built in the Straits, a similar expansion of Line 5 is likely, as seen on the Enbridge website.

Michigan has not only the authority but also the obligation to shut down Line 5 for Enbridge’s failure to maintain and operate it prudently. Revoking the easement would fulfill the state's legal obligation to protect public trust resources, like Great Lakes water.

In November, Michigan will have a chance to elect leaders who have vowed to shut down Line 5. Governor Snyder has said the fate of Line 5 will be decided by October. But the governor or attorney general could and should stop the flow of oil at once and begin to decommission Line 5 now. They are charged with protecting the waters of the Great Lakes — not the bottom line of a Canadian corporation.

To paraphrase an old saying about planting trees: The best time to shut down Line 5 was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.

Barbara Stamiris is a retired educator and longtime environmental activist. She was an intervenor in federal hearings regarding the Midland nuclear plant. In 1983 she testified before Congress about safety issues at the Midland plant, which never opened. She now devotes her time to safety issues regarding the Line 5 pipeline.


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