When Line 5 was built to transport oil and gas underneath the water strait that separates Lake Michigan from Lake Huron, it was considered a feat of modern construction. It not only was over-engineered and designed for the cold, underwater environment, it was considered convenient, too, as it eliminated tanker traffic on the Great Lakes and reduced the risk of an oil spill.
But all that was more than 60 years ago, way before Enbridge, the line operator, suffered the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history after one of its pipelines ruptured in Michigan in 2010. Since then, attitudes towards Enbridge and its aging Line 5 have eroded and now, a campaign to shut the line down is in full force. Just on Wednesday, some two dozen groups that include environmental organizations and tribes called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to shut the line on the basis of eight alleged easement violations. One presumed violation is the company’s failure to meet the pipeline’s wall thickness requirement due to corrosion and manufacturing defects. Closing the line that travels under the Straits of Mackinac, groups said, is urgent. “Such action is needed to address the unacceptably high risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that would devastate our public drinking waters, our economy, and our Pure Michigan way of life,” the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign said in the letter. It also claimed Enbridge lacks proper emergency response plans.
Built in 1953, Line 5 is a 30-inch-diameter pipeline that travels through Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas as it runs some 645 miles from Wisconsin to Canada. The line split into two 20-inch pipes as it goes through the straits and then comes back into one pipe again as it heads south. Thirty percent of the light crude oil it carries stays in Michigan, according to Enbridge, and some 85 percent of homes in northern Michigan are heated with its gas. The line, which carries about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids daily, is located right in the middle of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, both important water sources for cities like Chicago and Detroit.
Oil transportation largely relies on trains and pipelines. Out of those two, pipelines spill more often than trains. In the U.S., pipelines spilled three times as much crude oil as trains over the period of 2004 to 2012, according to an International Energy Agency study. And last year, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported 314 “significant” incidents causing damages of more than $305 million, and 10 fatalities.
In a statement to ThinkProgress, Enbridge said the company is in “full compliance with all state and federal regulations, and with the easement requirements for the Straits of Mackinac Crossing.” It also said the emergency response plan has been reviewed by various regulators. The line is also monitored non-stop, has remote shut-off systems and the line has been upgraded over the years, Ryan Duffy, Enbridge spokesman, told ThinkProgress. Thanks to new technology the life of the line is so far indefinite, Duffy said. “We appreciate people’s concerns, I mean they live there that’s their home,” he said, but “in almost 65 years now, there has never been any kind of issue with Line 5 whatsoever.”
But groups note that Enbridge itself has reported 36 cracks and 26 percent loss of pipeline wall thickness in portions of Line 5 near the Straits. For his part, Duffy said corrosion is controlled through various methods and that oil is transported at low pressure. Line 5 “is like new and in excellent condition.”
Groups’ call to action comes two weeks after the University of Michigan released a computer modeling study showing that more than 700 miles of shoreline are vulnerable to a Line 5 oil spill. The pipeline has been under the public eye for some time now, with the state first commissioning a Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force largely in response to the 2010 oil spill. That task force last year recommended the creation of a pipeline safety advisory body. That board is evaluating Line 5 risks and possible alternatives to shipping oil through the Straits — however, the evaluation process may not be complete until mid-2017, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Meanwhile, the company has been trying to appease fears and has reached out to communities and officials in past weeks. In doing so, Enbridge is trying to counter what Duffy called “wrong information” while touting Line 5 safety and other economic benefits. On a website dedicated to Line 5, the company calls its line “A vital piece of Michigan energy infrastructure” that offers 250 jobs. “It would be a big loss if something were to happen,” Duffy said, “but we don’t see any reason for that at this point.”
Whether Line 5 can withstand the public pressure that’s been brewing since Enbridge spilled over 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River, a waterway some 270 miles from Line 5, remains to be seen. The challenge may prove daunting, though, since some state lawmakers are eager to stop new oil pipelines and want a swift independent review of Line 5. In fact, state Senator Rick Jones, a Republican, said this week he’ll introduce legislation blocking new pipelines from running through the Great Lakes, Michigan Public Radio reported. The bill requires existing lines to undergo a third-party safety review that could shut Line 5 if it was deemed unsafe.
“A [Line 5 break] would devastate tourism in places like Mackinac Island. It would harm fishing. It would harm Lake Huron for a hundred years. It’s something we just can’t allow,” Jones said.
The story wrongly stated Line 5 had new coating. The story has been updated to reflect that change.