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Andrea Newell headshot

Reports Predict Disaster If Enbridge Pipeline Ruptures in Great Lakes

By Andrea Newell

A recent report by the University of Michigan illustrates the devastation that could occur if a 60-year-old pipeline carrying 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas fluids every day were to rupture in the Great Lakes, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world.

Enbridge, the same company still cleaning up the Kalamazoo River four years after the biggest inland spill in U.S. history, has two 20-inch pipelines running from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario, directly through the Straits of Mackinac between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. In July 2013, the company completed $100 million in upgrades in order to increase flow from 490,000 barrels per day to 540,000, but did not replace any of the aging pipeline.

The main problem with an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac is that the currents shift from east to west and back again every few days, and peak flow can be up to 10 times as fast as the Niagra River. The U of M report and animation shows how an oil spill would reach tourist destination Mackinac Island within 12 hours, and after 20 days, it would reach as far as Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and Rogers City in Lake Huron.

Great Lakes residents and government have already shown concern about the six-decades-old pipeline (Line 5) and the possibility for failure. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline (Line 6B) that runs through southern Michigan ruptured, spilling between 840,000 and 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen (dilbit) into the Kalamazoo River, where estimates say 180,000 gallons remain and one of the costliest cleanups (nearly $1 billion and counting) continues four years later. Line 6B is 40 years old (younger than Line 5), but the company claims that it failed due to a type of tape coating workers used as it was installed and this coating was not used on Line 5.

“We have concerns that (Enbridge) is increasing capacity on a 60-year-old pipeline that has not been upgraded at all, and has one of the most sensitive water crossings in the world,” said Beth Wallace, (former) community outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation told the Petoskey News in July 2013.

In July 2013, the National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Land Use Institute and other environmental groups and individuals held a rally at the Bridge View Park in St. Ignace (the city on the north side of the Mackinac Bridge) to air their concerns. In February 2014, the Mackinac County Planning Commission hosted Enbridge officials at a community meeting in St. Ignace to answer questions after the National Wildlife Federation released "Sunken Hazard," a report also predicting the disastrous consequences of a pipeline spill in the Great Lakes.

In the report, Enbridge claims to have a minimum eight-minute reaction time to shut off the pipeline if there were any leaks, likely resulting in a 1.5 million gallon spill in that time. However, even though it received warnings from its leak detection system in the Kalamazoo River, it took the company 17 hours to react and shut down the Line 6B pipeline after a local utility informed them of the leak. 

The National Wildlife Federation states:

The Enbridge pipelines that cross the Straits of Mackinac have never spilled oil into the conjoined waters of Lake Michigan and Huron, according to government officials. But evidence is mounting that there is reason to be concerned. The Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits has a history of problems, just like the company that owns it. Pipelines deteriorate as they age, according to engineering experts, and the Line 5 pipes at the Straits have been subjected to fierce underwater currents, intense external pressure and varying water temperatures for nearly 60 years...Unless action is taken, an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac isn’t a question of if—it’s a question of when.

More than 150 people came to the St. Ignace meeting from around the state to listen and ask questions. Enbridge spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie answered many questions, especially the repeated query about what the company would do if there was a spill. The EUPNews reported her response:
... The bottom line is we can speculate all day on worst-case scenarios. What I can tell you and what we’ve tried to show you are all of the different safety mechanisms that we have in place to ensure that hopefully we don’t have any incidents but if we do, we work with our OSRO, and the coast Guard and all of these other places to ensure that we contain it as quickly as possible and return it to, return it back to the state in which it was.

At the end of the meeting there were still many people with questions, especially regarding the Kalamazoo River spill, which the company steadfastly resisted talking about, inciting anger amongst attendees. Reassurances that they would "return it back to the state in which it was" clearly did not appease the audience since the cleanup on the Kalamazoo River is still ongoing and residents there have been heavily impacted. Enbridge concluded by stating that it did not intend to replace the pipeline, but it also did not intend to pump dilbit through Line 5, either. This provides no comfort to the many environmental groups that remain convinced that a spill is an eventual certainty.

Earlier this month, 19 environmental groups sent Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), a letter urging him to make the safety of the Great Lakes a priority and require Enbridge to be more transparent and meet more stringent regulations. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked the Department of Transportation to investigate the pipeline's condition in December 2013, after Enbridge increased the daily capacity of Line 5. DoT officials reported that Enbridge had implemented many safety precautions. Despite these assurances, concerns remain about the pipeline's safety and the devastation a spill would cause.

“The Great Lakes supply drinking water to 42 million people,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “We can’t afford another potential Enbridge oil pipeline spill like what happened in the Kalamazoo River. All of the Great Lakes states have a vital stake in avoiding oil spill hazards in the Straits of Mackinac.”

Image credit: Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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