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The Ticking Time Bomb: What You Need To Know About The Line 5 Pipeline

The Mackinac Bridge
PHOTO FROM UNSPLASH/AARON BURDEN

The Enbridge Line 5 Pipeline in Michigan was constructed in 1953 and just about 23 million gallons of oil travel through it every day.1  Here’s where it gets worrisome – the aging pipeline runs under the Great Lakes.  Since 1968, Line 5 has had 33 spills equaling at least 1.1 million gallons of oil.1  Governor Whitmer revoked the original 1953 easement agreement which authorized Enbridge, the Canadian-owned company, to operate Line 5 in November of the last year2 as she describes it as a “ticking time bomb.”  The May 12th deadline to stop moving oil through the pipeline has seemingly been ignored by Enbridge.3  Governor Whitmer announced that “Michigan will attempt to seize any profits that Enbridge makes from operating”4 Line 5.  However, Enbridge claims Michigan has no jurisdiction over pipeline safety, saying that only the U.S. federal government has jurisdiction.  The Canadian government has already threatened to fight Michigan’s shutdown order in the courts at the federal level.”3  

The Potential For Water Hazards

If Line 5 bursts, it will be devastating for the 50 million people who depend on the Great Lakes for their water supply in both the US and Canada.3  Enbridge does not have a good track record with oil spills, especially when considering it’s the company behind the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill (west of Marshall, Michigan), one of the largest inland oil spills in the U.S.5 as “Line 6B spilled 1.1 million gallons of tar sands bitumen”1 into the river.  

Enbridge’s history with unsupported spans is concerning.  The 1953 easement designates anchor supports for gaps in any lakebed span greater than 75 feet.6  However, Line 5 inspections between 2005 and 2016 report 250 points of unsupported spans exceeding 75 feet.6

“…a 2003 survey identified 16 unsupported spans greater than 140 feet, with the longest being 224 feet on the east pipe and 286 feet on the west pipe. The 286-foot unsupported span was nearly four times the allowable length.” 6

Even though Enbridge claims all previously unsupported spans have been anchored, the structural integrity of the pipeline is called into question for being unattended for so long by critics like Ed Timm.  Timm, “a retired Dow Chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in fluid mechanics,”6 wrote an independent technical report on Line 5, released by the National Wildlife Federation in 2019, after studying the pipeline for three years.  He finds that currents have been pushing against unanchored pipe sections as Enbridge neglected “unsupported spans of at least 150 feet until 16 years ago”6 and from a 2016 inspection video, a segment of the west pipe has a visible bend.  

Just recently in April, Enbridge came to a settlement with the shipping companies, Van Enkevort Tug & Barge and MOM Erie Trader.  The settlement comes after an anchor from a Clyde S. Van Enkevort tug and an Erie Trader barge (operating together as a connected vessel) was released and dragged in 2018.7  The anchor’s brake pad was found to be faulty and there were communications errors with rough weather, according to the Coast Guard.  In the lawsuit, the vessel owners and shipping form contended that Enbridge was to blame, at least partially for the incident since they “failed to locate its dual underwater pipeline in a location that was protected against anchor strikes and did not apply protective armoring to cover the lines.”3  

Indigenous Impacts 

Four miles of Line 5 is at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac and the line moves about 540,000 barrels per day of light crude oil, synthetic crude, and natural gas liquids.8  The environmental damages Line 5 poses are in direct conflict with the Treaty of 1836.   The Treaty of 1836 “guaranteed tribes hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on the lands and waters in perpetuity. This includes the Straits of Mackinac.”The pipeline faces opposition from the 12 Native American tribes in Michigan.   An oil spill in the Straits would have disastrous effects on the surrounding environment and wildlife, which would ultimately compromise the region’s indigenous people’s ability “to practice their subsistence ways of life”8 as protected by the treaty.  Potential environmental damage would not be good for the 50% of households in Michigan’s Bay Mills Indian Community who earn income from fishing.8 

“The Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi have signed friends-of-the-court briefs supporting the state’s notice of revocation and termination of the 1953 easement for Line 5.” 8

What You Can Do

Sources 

  1. “The Problem with the Line 5 Oil Pipeline.” Oil & Water Don’t Mix, www.oilandwaterdontmix.org/problem.  
  2. Schollett, Marc. “Special Report: The Origins of Enbridge’s Line 5 Pipeline in the Straits.” WPBN, WPBN, 25 May 2021, www.upnorthlive.com/news/local/special-report-the-origins-of-line-5.  
  3. Hayes, Patrick. “Fossil Fuel Company Defies Government Order to Shut Down Michigan Pipeline.” Sierra Club, 25 May 2021, www.sierraclub.org/sierra/fossil-fuel-company-defies-government-order-shut-down-michigan-pipeline.  
  4. Ellison, Garret, and Gus Burns. “Whitmer Threatens Profit Seizure as Enbridge Line 5 Closure Deadline Looms.” Mlive, 11 May 2021, www.mlive.com/public-interest/2021/05/whitmer-threatens-profit-seizure-as-enbridge-line-5-closure-deadline-looms.html
  5. Riesterer, Joseph. “The Enduring Legacy of the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill.” Belt Magazine, 30 July 2019, https://beltmag.com/kalamazoo-river-line-6b-oil-spill/.  
  6. Ellison, Garret. “Enbridge Was Violating Line 5 Easement for Years, Documents Show.” Mlive, 2 June 2017, www.mlive.com/news/2017/06/line_5_unsupported_spans.html.  
  7. Ellison, Garret. “Enbridge Settles with Shipping Firm after 2018 Line 5 Anchor Strike.” Mlive, 16 Apr. 2021, www.mlive.com/public-interest/2021/04/enbridge-settles-with-shipping-firm-after-2018-line-5-anchor-strike.html.  
  8. Pember, Mary  Annette. “Enbridge Line 5 Pipeline Battle Heats Up in Michigan.” Truthout, Truthout, 24 May 2021, https://truthout.org/articles/enbridge-line-5-pipeline-battle-heats-up-in-michigan/.