Will Enbridge Line 5 be the next major environmental disaster?

We all remember the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, where a methane-based explosion sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  It took British Petroleum (BP), the company operating that drilling rig, more than two months to contain the deluge – but not before millions of birds, mollusks, crustaceans, and marine mammals found their habitats destroyed.

That’s not even including the billions of dollars in settlements that BP was forced to shell out as a result of human casualties, health defects, and lost commerce for seafood harvesters and fisheries.  Hundreds of square miles within the Macondo Prospect (the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion) will remain a “dead zone” for all of our lifetimes.

One year later, on the other side of the globe, the perfect storm of a tsunami and a 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to melt down – releasing hundreds upon hundreds of metric tons of radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean.  To this day, the Fukushima site is still creating pollution, cancer risks, and residual radioactive waste.  In fact, some people believe that a majority of the Pacific Ocean will become contaminated (if not already), including its marine life (I guess if that happens, I won’t live for very long – because I’m not giving up seafood!).

Now, we face a potential threat of a similar caliber in the Great Lakes Region.  The structure-in-question:  Enbridge Line 5.  It’s a ticking time bomb that threatens the future sustainability of Lake Michigan, and, to a lesser extent, Lake Huron.  By the way, Lake Michigan serves as a water source for the entire city of Chicago, as well as providing maritime port access to four different states.  Enbridge Line 5 is an oil pipeline that precariously crosses the Straits of Mackinac – connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan by barely a sliver.

My message to politicians and citizens alike:  if we don’t force our state and federal governments to take precautions by renovating – if not shutting down completely – Enbridge Line 5, we could be looking at an unprecedented ecological disaster amid America’s Heartland.  In the same way that water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) demanded that Energy Transfer Partners LP must #KeepItInTheGround, I maintain that we must all insist that Enbridge and its executives take measures to…


Enbridge Line 5 was constructed in the 1950s, as the lynchpin of an effort to forge a shorter route to transport crude oil across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and down into its Lower Peninsula.  Political blogger Brian O’Neill explains the rationale was that this would be a faster and more efficient route than the roundabout path of transporting oil southbound through Wisconsin, curving around the Chicago area, and straight through Northern Indiana up across Michigan’s southern border.

Unfortunately, as chronicled by O’Neill, the waves and winds that pummel this set of twin-pipelines across the Straits of Mackinac are erratic and precarious due to Mother Nature’s whims.  The crossing of Enbridge Line 5 along the narrow isthmus where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet has been a disaster-waiting-to-happen throughout the past six decades.

enbridge line 5

Joe Brusky — Flickr

Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel further illustrates this danger in his phenomenal journalistic piece from this past January.  Since 1953, the crude oil has been flowing through Enbridge Line 5 between both of Michigan’s peninsulas amid the Straits of Mackinac – and, as of 2013, Enbridge has been pumping more than 540,000 barrels per day (well above the quantity that the Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to transport).

As Egan points out, the surface water flow across the Straits of Mackinac is constantly changing its direction.  This means that the volatility of those currents throughout the past sixty years have made the security levels of Enbridge Line 5 quite unpredictable.  In addition, the currents send materials and residue from the bottoms of these lakes – rushing in all directions at double the rate of that which the pipes’ original constructors had anticipated.

Beginning in 1975, Enbridge has – on nine separate occasions – done preventative work on Line 5 by using grout-bag supports and, eventually, steel brackets.  These incremental upgrades have helped to solidify the pipeline’s structure, preventing a worst-case scenario of a major oil spill in the Great Lakes…so far.  Yet, Enbridge’s current request for twenty-two additional supports – to shore up vulnerable spans of piping underwater – is still pending.

Last August, executives at Enbridge requested a permit for the installation of extra underwater fortification.  These requests include the renovation of spans along Line 5 that presently violate Michigan state safety standards.  But, in all its bureaucratic glory, the state of Michigan has failed to grant updated permits to the company.

The late Bruce Trudgen, a veteran engineer who was part of the crew that built the original infrastructure for Enbridge Line 5, testified that the bottom of the pipelines’ structural supports have become unstable from decades’ worth of erosion within the lake beneath the Straits of Mackinac.  And, in the event of a worst-case disaster scenario (such as a major oil spill resulting from a leak or malfunction), contingency preparedness specialist Steven Keck says that the U.S. Coast Guard is currently underequipped and undermanned for the purposes of responding quickly or appropriately.  President Donald Trump’s proposed freeze to the Coast Guard’s budget certainly won’t improve this situation.  

For its part, Enbridge paints a rosy, overly-optimistic evaluation of its contingency plans.  Enbridge insists that sonar equipment, cameras, and MRI-like devices are regularly monitoring Line 5’s stability.  Last June, the company appropriated $7 million for oil spill cleanup equipment; it also stations an around-the-clock surveillance team in the city of St. Ignace to hypothetically provide rapid response if any cracks are detected.

Yet, Enbridge’s insistence that these pipelines are safe isn’t exactly comforting.  Its head honchos are merely hoping that nothing bad happens to Enbridge Line 5 – the same way American politicians are *hoping* our economy will improve.  After all, this is the same company that was responsible for the disastrous Kalamazoo River oil spill of 2010.  Under the Trump Administration, will EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt prioritize this potential hazard in terms of crisis prevention rather than crisis intervention?  Have damage-controllers at Enbridge even been seeking out assistance from Pruitt himself?

Enbridge acknowledges that, even if the shut-off valves are properly working, as much as 200,000 gallons of crude oil could “fall through the cracks” and spill out onto the Straits of Mackinac – depending on the severity of the leak or how soon it’s detected.

If we’re speaking in geological terms, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron could technically be considered one large lake; practically speaking, we consider them to be separate bodies of water based on their respective shapes and placements adjacent to the U.S./Canadian border.

So what would be the consequences of a potential oil spill from Enbridge Line 5 to surrounding bodies of water?  That would obviously depend on the magnitude of such a leak itself.  However, University of Michigan Water Center researcher Dave Schwab has run simulations estimating that anywhere from 150-700 miles of shoreline south of the Mackinac straits would be threatened by contamination.  Egan and O’Neill both corroborate these estimates, citing the likelihood that an Enbridge-inflicted oil spill could drift southward as far as Green Bay or Door County of Wisconsin.

The significance of this hypothetical disaster scenario is that Lake Michigan serves as one of the purest bodies of water in our county, as the Great Lakes remain one of America’s last freshwater sources.  Lake Michigan also lacks the oil-eating microbes found in the Gulf of Mexico, which is why an oil spill in this location could be even more detrimental than the BP-inflicted Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010.  Cleanup efforts would cost a minimum of $800 million, and the cleanup effort would be even more arduous to accomplish during the winter (although the dissemination of the oil would be more contained upon frozen lakewater of the winter compared to a free-flowing surface found throughout spring, summer, or autumn).  That’s not even including the costs of repairing Enbridge Line 5 itself, after the fact.

Additionally, retired engineer Ed Timm projects that a Great Lakes spill would conceivably threaten the trout populations of Northern Michigan.  When you factor in all of the lost commerce that fisheries would incur – along with how the Kalamazoo River Spill of 2010 (Enbridge Line 6B) cost upwards of $1 billion – the overall damage would likely total in the several dozen billions.

Republican state senator Rick Jones (of Grand Ledge, Michigan) contends that it would take Lake Michigan a full century to recover from such a spill, while it would take Lake Huron a good quarter-century to recover.  On top of that, Jones points out how most of the crude oil transported by Enbridge Line 5 is actually sold outside of Michigan itself.  Dan Wyant, the Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, has commissioned environmental studies and a formal exploration of alternate methods of transportation for Enbridge’s crude oil and natural gas.

But many individuals and local governments throughout Michigan have demanded that the twin pipes be decommissioned altogether…or at least have their cargo reduced in volume.  FLOW (For Love Of Water) and the National Wildlife Federation are some of the environmental groups to have called for Enbridge Line 5’s shutdown.  Chris Shepler, a ferry operator on Mackinac Island, wants Line 5 shut down because he fears that the Line #6B crisis will be replicated in Northern Michigan.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette (the state’s current Attorney General) has also spoken out against Enbridge Line #5 continuing on this iffy trajectory.  Other opponents of the pipelines’ continued overuse include U.S. Senator Gary Peters, Macomb County Public Works commissioner Candice Miller (possibly running against Schuette in next year’s GOP gubernatorial primary), and U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.

The true source of inaction in this Enbridge-based fiasco-waiting-to-occur is Governor Rick Synder – who also, not coincidentally, fell asleep at the wheel in preventing the Flint water crisis from manifesting.  Governor Snyder, of course, has no personal incentive to take action and expedite Enbridge’s request for permits – Snyder is term-limited from running for reelection in 2018, and is essentially a “lame duck” at this point in his gubernatorial tenure.  He probably is just shrugging his shoulders and leaving it to become the burden of his successor.  Yet, as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (a former Michigan state senator and Senate Democratic Leader) points out, Snyder’s Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board has been dragging its feet.

As culpable as Snyder is for his inaction, I also have to give some accusatory shout-outs to Pruitt (as EPA Administrator) and Ryan Zinke (U.S. Secretary of the Interior).  They have the power and influence to compel President Donald Trump to use his bully pulpit to lean on Snyder and at least grant Enbridge Line 5 any construction permits that the company has requested.

And members of Congress, in theory, could also appropriate funding or impose regulations to shore up the security of this precarious infrastructural hazard.  Are you listening, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell?

So what can the rest of us do to light a fire under their asses?  As I suggested in my piece about fixing bee colony collapse, we should publicly call out and lobby every member of Congress to hold Enbridge, Governor Snyder, and the federal government accountable for the safety of Enbridge Line 5.  That means:  A.) expediting approval of the permits that Enbridge has solicited; B.) passing whatever “stopgap” funding is needed to guarantee that the structural supports of Line 5 are secured; C.) diverting some of the defense budget from other branches of the military so that the U.S. Coast Guard isn’t left out in the cold, when it comes to readiness; and D.) passing federal regulations that shore up the security of any pipeline crossing a lake or river that serves as a source for our public water supply.

enbridge line 5

Joe Brusky — Flickr

We should all be writing to members of Congress, as well as state/local officials, to make a lot of noise about this crisis-in-the-making until Snyder and U.S. Congress finally take action.  I would start out by lobbying (through letter-writing; click on names for links) Michigan’s entire congressional delegation:  U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, as well as U.S. Representatives Jack Bergman (whose congressional district contains Enbridge Line #5 itself), John Conyers, Sander Levin, Fred Upton, Bill Huizenga, Tim Walberg, Justin Amash, Dan Kildee, John Moolenaar, David Trott, Brenda Lawrence, Debbie Dingell, Mike Bishop, and Paul Mitchell.

So who else should we lobby?  I would direct efforts toward those members of Congress who serve on multiple committees dealing with environmental regulations, infrastructure, pipeline safety, transportation, and the Coast Guard.  These individuals include U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), along with U.S. Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), John Garamendi (D-CA), Jason Lewis (R-MN), and Randy Weber (R-TX).

Other congresspersons upon whom public pressure should be placed are members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment & Related Agencies:  chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA), Mark Amodei (R-NV), Tom Cole (R-OK), Evan Jenkins (R-WV), David Joyce (R-OH), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Mike Simpson (R-ID), and Chris Stewart (R-UT) – along with members of its counterpart in the U.S. Senate:  chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Steve Daines (R-MT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Hoeven (R-ND), Pat Leahy (D-RI), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

Also in the U.S. House, there’s the Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines & Hazardous Materials, which includes:  chairman Jeff Denham (R-CA), Brian Babin (R-TX), Lou Barletta (R-PA), Mike Capuano (D-MA), Andre Carson (D-IN), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), John Duncan Jr. (R-TN), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Blake Farenthold (R-TX), John Faso (R-NY), Sam Graves (R-KS), John Katko (R-NY), Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Mark Meadows (R-NC), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Rick Nolan (D-MN), Scott Perry (R-PA), Donald Payne (D-NJ), Todd Rokita (R-IN), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), Albio Sires (D-NJ), Daniel Webster (R-FL), and Bruce Westerman (R-AR).

And, over in the U.S. Senate, we have members of the Environment & Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure:  Senator Inhofe is the chairman, alongside John Boozman (R-AR), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Finally, there are those who sit on the House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation:  chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Garret Graves (R-LA), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Brian Mast (R-FL), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington D.C.), David Rouzer (R-NC), and Don Young (R-AK); as well as its closest U.S. Senate counterpart, the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries & Coast Guard:  Senator Sullivan is its chairman, alongside Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Todd Young (R-IN).

But Michigan state officials seem content to wait until the federal government theoretically steps in and forces them to take action on Enbridge Line 5.  And members of Congress (and the Trump Administration) appear content to leave it up to Governor Snyder to get the ball rolling.  Thus, nothing gets done.  And the rest of us wait in limbo – nibbling our nails, praying that the worst outcome doesn’t come to pass via contamination of the Great Lakes.

This disaster might happen five weeks from now.  It might happen five months from now.  It might happen five years from now.  Hell, it might not happen until fifty years from now.  But Murphy’s Law dictates that it will happen, eventually.

When it comes to our nation’s last remaining freshwater major lakes, shouldn’t our government take the precaution of being safe rather than being sorry?  Since we can see a disaster scenario for Enbridge Line 5 coming a mile away, shouldn’t we actually prevent it before the damage itself transpires and becomes environmentally dire?

Unless you think oil-filled drinking water is somehow acceptable, I suggest that everyone join me in demanding that the aforementioned public figures take immediate action on Enbridge Line 5, and…


Featured image by Ingrid Taylar via Flickr.