A few words about the aging pipeline carrying oil underneath the Straits of Mackinac

Passenger ferries arrive at Haldimand Bay on Mackinac Island.
Boats and passenger ferries at Haldimand Bay on Mackinac Island.

It’s hard to overstate what the Great Lakes mean to those of us who live in Michigan. The freshwater seas are, quite simply, our pride and joy, the best parts of living here. They’re our version of the Rockies. It’s the beach, for chrissakes, only without the threat of sharks or crabs pinching your toes beneath the waves. People who’ve never been here have no idea how beautiful they are.

And few places are more breathtaking than the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan flows into Lake Huron at the top of the mitten. Hell, I worked on Mackinac Island (pictured above) for five years, and yet it’s only when I return that I fully remember how completely and indescribably beautiful it is there — the colors of the water, the quality of the light, the sweetness of the air, everything.

So I feel a growing, gnawing pit in my stomach whenever talk turns to the 62-year-old oil pipeline along the bottom of the straits. And that’s been happening a lot lately.

The truth is, when I worked on the island, I had no idea that beneath all that glorious fresh water, west of the Mackinac Bridge, were twin pipes carrying light crude oil and natural gas liquids from Alberta to Sarnia, Ontario. Most people probably didn’t.

Line 5 really only entered the public conscience after the owner and operator of the pipeline, Enbridge Inc., made history in 2010. That was the year it was responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, a 17-hour gusher that fouled 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River and a tributary, leading to a five-year, $1.2 billion cleanup and millions in fines. Experts say the river still isn’t clean.

I don’t have any special technical insight into the pipeline, which was originally billed to last up to 50 years, or even a novel position on it, so I’ll make this short: I just want it shut down, now. And I feel compelled to use whatever puny platform I have to express my feelings about it.

I’m hardly alone. The usual tree-hugger suspects are unanimous in their opposition to it. So are a lot of people. Last weekend, former Gov. William Milliken, a moderate Republican and champion of protecting the environment, wrote in the Detroit Free Press that the line should be shut down immediately.

“As a matter of principle and public trust law, the state must never risk the Great Lakes for the benefit of a private interest, especially if alternative existing pipelines or alternative routes could be used,” Milliken wrote (emphasis mine). “There is too much at stake: the Great Lakes support about 800,000 Michigan jobs, providing $54 billion a year in income.”

In 2014, researchers from the University of Michigan ran a model to see how a rupture in the line would affect the turbulent straits under a variety of conditions. The results are the stuff of nightmares:

It’s not a stretch to say that a spill there would not only imperil drinking water, fisheries and other pristine ecological habitat, but ruin property values and plunge places already dependent on the seasonal tourism trade into a depression.

Enbridge talks a good game about the lessons learned from the Kalamazoo, and how oil goes into so many useful household products, blab blab woof woof. But as the Metro Times reported in a recent piece you should read, the Canadian company has been responsible for more than 800 spills in its oil pipelines between 1999 and 2010. Oil pipelines don’t last forever. They all eventually fail.

Unfortunately, it would take a court order or action by federal regulators to shut it down, which MLive reported is a tough task without proof that line failure is imminent. The GOP-controlled Legislature could probably also do a lot to get it closed and rerouted, but … OK, stop laughing.

Attorney General Bill Schuette co-chaired a task force that was critical of Enbridge and said the pipeline’s “days are numbered.” He needs to go further, grow a pair and find ways to shut the line down.

The alternative is unthinkable.

Creative Commons photo by Jasperdo

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