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Why the Line 5 issue should concern everyone

By Stacy Gittleman


Displayed on license plates and travel websites, perhaps the most emblematic symbol of Michigan’s connection to the Great Lakes is the Mackinac Bridge. Below the span that is nearly 30,000 feet long churns the clear blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac. The waters feature dramatic temperature fluctuations and turbulent currents ten times the power of Niagara Falls that push water back and forth between Lakes Michigan and Huron.


According to the Great Lakes Commission, these five inland seas, boasting 4,530 miles of coastline, constitute 21 percent of the entire planet’s fresh surface water. They provide drinking water and sustenance to 48 million people in the Great Lakes Basin and provide the backbone for a $6 trillion regional economy that would be one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country. Overall, the churning currents of the Straits of Mackinac provide water for millions of Michigan residents and is a critical wildlife habitat of fish, fowl, and other native species. For Michiganders, it is a part of our natural heritage, a place to vacation, hike and explore.


The waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan, and its stewardship, according to government and environmental officials, is part of the public trust of the people of Michigan. But deep in that water rests an aging threat that has the potential to cause one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history: the Enbridge Line 5 easement.


Since Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on November 21, 2020, to terminate operation of the easement of Enbridge Line 5 by May 21, 2021, Michigan has been embroiled in a legal battle with energy transport giant Enbridge to keep it open. Every province leader in Canada has written to Whitmer to reverse her decision because they purport that thousands of Canadian jobs are on the line and the closure could result in a trade war between the two countries. Canadians have even called upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to evoke a 1977 agreement between President Jimmy Carter and Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which put limits on transit pipeline actions that may harm energy supply in either country.


Additionally, Whitmer’s order to cease operations of Line 5 does not cancel the $500 million deal the former Governor Rick Snyder administration made with Enbridge to drill and build a concrete tunnel submerged 100 feet into the bedrock of the straits to house a Line 5 replacement tunnel to pump fossil fuels for the next century. On January 29, Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted Enbridge a wastewater permit, and on February 4, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, charged to oversee the construction and operation of Enbridge's Line-5 tunnel project, approved additional structural engineering contracts for the project. The construction and oversight when completed will be under the auspices of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority. Enbridge will use its own funds to build and maintain the tunnel for the duration of its life.


Beginning in 1949, Canadian-based Enbridge Energy built an oil pipeline infrastructure network 17,127 miles across North America, including 8,627 miles in the United States, and 8,500 miles in Canada.


Line 5 is part of Enbridge’s 645-mile-long Lakehead network, which carries up to 540,000 barrels – or 22.68 million gallons – including light crude oil, light synthetic crude, and natural gas liquids (NGLs), which are refined into propane per day from western Canada to refineries in the United States and Ontario. It begins in Superior, Wisconsin, and runs to Sarnia, Ontario, traversing parts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Some Michigan drilling companies use Line 5 to transport the oil they produce. That product is introduced into the pipeline at Lewiston, Michigan.


In 1953, Enbridge constructed a 4.5-mile twin easement of Line 5 that splits into twin, 20-inch pipelines and runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Back then, cars had fins and gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon. The country was three years shy of President Dwight Eisenhower passing the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 which made way for the Interstate Highway system and revved up America’s car culture.


While manufacturers, downstate business owners and some in the Upper Peninsula assert that keeping Line 5 running is vital to Michigan’s energy infrastructure, scientists and environmentalists, and now the executive branch of Michigan’s state government, say Enbridge is in violation of environmental and safety regulations and it is just a matter of time before the pipe ruptures.


If one wants to understand the potential hazard in the Straits, it is helpful to back up about a decade to a disaster that occurred in a different part of Michigan along another Enbridge pipeline. In July of 2010, Enbridge Line 6B ruptured and leaked along the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, spilling one million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This disaster prompted the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in 2012 to release its comprehensive document Sunken Hazard. Extensively researched by NWF’s Jeff Alexander and Beth Wallace, Sunken Hazard revealed that Enbridge had more than 800 spills in North America between 1999 and 2010, dumping nearly 6.8 million gallons of oil. Though there has never been a spill in the portion of Line 5 that passes under the Straits, the report documented 33 spills since 1968 along Line 5 in Wisconsin and Michigan involving 1.1 million gallons. According to the report, only one of those spills was discovered by Enbridge’s leak detection systems.


“We have to look no further than the Enbridge Line 6B disaster, and Enbridge’s slow remediation and cleanup response, and the nuisance it inflicted on the neighbors who lived along 6B, to understand why Line 5 is a ticking time bomb,” said David Schwab, retired environmental scientist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and leader of one of the most comprehensive studies to examine what an oil spill in the Straits would entail.


In 2016, the Water Center at the University of Michigan released a study led by Schwab, who ran over 800 computer model scenarios to predict what would happen should Line 5 rupture under the Straits. Schwab studied how the Great Lakes would be impacted should Line 5 leak 5,000, 10,000 or 25,000 barrels of oil. He came to one stark conclusion: the Straits of Mackinac is the worst place in the world for an oil spill.


“If a spill were to happen anywhere else in the Great Lakes, it would move offshore and be dispersed before it could have an impact on beaches or wildlife,” explained Schwab. “But if Line 5 ruptures, the strong currents could take the spill and damage and has a variable of 700 miles of United States and Canadian shoreline along Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.”


Schwab concluded that a spill of 25,000 gallons would cause environmental degradation to more than 150 miles of shoreline. At highest risk are areas considered Pure Michigan for their natural beauty and the economic powerhouse of tourism dollars they bring in. They include the Bois Blanc Islands, Mackinaw City and its adjacent shorelines, and areas on the north shore of the Straits near the Mackinac Bridge. Communities at risk also include Beaver Island, Cross Village, Harbor Springs, Cheboygan, and other areas of Lake Huron-Michigan.


The Water Center study also revealed that more than 15 percent of Lake Michigan’s open water (3,528 square miles) and nearly 60 percent of Lake Huron’s open water (13,611 square miles) could be affected. For those of us living in southeast Michigan, Line 5 is not just some issue Up North, because a spill or rupture would potentially greatly impact our water supply, which is tied to the waters of Lake Huron.


Just as environmental groups praised Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel for their efforts to close Line 5 and seek alternative methods and sources to deliver energy to the state, they scorned EGLE for approving a permit application for Enbridge to dispose of millions of gallons of treated wastewater into the Straits for the construction of that tunnel.


Scott Dean, EGLE’s strategic communications advisor, said that the state environmental agency approved the permit to treat any wastewater stemming from the construction of Line 5 because Enbridge would adequately treat wastewater according to laws and statutes set out by the state legislature. The project still must meet approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the Michigan Public Service Commission.


According to Dean, there is no statutory mechanism to factor in climate change when making such decisions.


“EGLE’s decision to approve the wastewater permit to Enbridge illuminates several related policy issues,” said Dean. “That being said, the basis of EGLE’s decision is required to be limited to compliance with relevant environmental statutes as they are created by the state legislature. EGLE is not allowed to factor in (climate change) when we are applying the statutes of the law. Our review shows that the construction of the proposed project could comply with existing state environmental laws as created by the state legislature. And we have issued permits designed to ensure that, if a tunnel is constructed, it would be in strict compliance with the protections that impact our Great Lakes. “


Nicholas J. Schroeck, associate dean of experiential education and director of the environmental law clinic at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said the time is here to update environmental laws, many drafted in the 1970’s, and update and address them to take climate change into consideration.


“In the 1970’s, climate change was not on the radar screen for most people, including legislators,” noted Schroeck. “Environmental laws were drafted to focus on things like water pollution from factory pipes, and those laws have done a decent job of cleaning up our Great Lakes, but there is much more work to do. The biggest current threat to the health of our waters is climate change.”


Schroeck said what is needed is comprehensive, national legislation to address climate change. In the meantime, he said the Michigan legislature should move to update state environmental laws to include climate change impacts in permitting and continue to speed transition to renewable energy.


EGLE said that prior to making its Line 5 tunnel wastewater decision, it took into consideration over 2,000 public comments, some expressing concern how the project will exacerbate climate change.


Among the public comments submitted were several from a grassroots environmentalist group based in Traverse City called For the Love of Water, or FLOW. In a written December 15, 2020 statement submitted on behalf of a dozen organizations, including tribal organizations, the Michigan Environmental Council, and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MCLV), FLOW expressed concern not only about the fossil fuels the tunnel would deliver but the environmental degradation that the tunnel’s construction could inflict upon the Straits.


FLOW asserted that returning these gallons to the waterway as heated and treated wastewater, along with the project’s use of heavy machinery, bentonite slurry, blasting of bedrock, would threaten to impact or displace fishing, cultural and historic resources, such as traditional cemetery or burial sites of the Odawa and Ojibwe Tribes of Michigan.


The statement, addressed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requests that the project be reviewed within the parameters of federal legislation such as the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System before finalizing approval for the project.


FLOW has also conducted numerous studies debunking the notion of just how dependent Michiganders in the Upper Peninsula are on Line 5 for fuel.


“Line 5’s products mostly serve Canada, with less than 10 percent of the oil used in Michigan,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “The Line 5 easement – essentially a shortcut for Enbridge to move Canadian oil products from their western regions to their eastern refineries, was never intended to be a vital energy source for Michigan. Instead, it threatens the drinking water supply for 5 million Michigan residents, the Pure Michigan tourist economy, and a way of life. It is time for the state of Michigan to evict Enbridge from the Straits of Mackinac and shut down Line 5 because of the oil spill danger to the Great Lakes.”


Environmentalists and others wishing to make way for greener sources of energy and leave the age of fossil fuels in the rear mirror are encouraged by a flurry of recent developments from industry and state and federal governments. On January 20, President Joe Biden in an executive order revoked Calgary-based TC Energy’s Keystone XL’s presidential permit and shut down construction of the controversial pipeline that was to carry oil from Canada to Texas. Biden also re-entered the United States into the Paris Climate accord. On January 27, S&P Global Ratings downgraded its view of the entire oil and gas industry to “moderately high risk,” although recent reports say that oil prices are making their greatest rebound since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Environmentalists say Enbridge’s push to pump petroleum products through a tunnel for the next 99 years – and EGLE’s recent approval of a permit – is out of touch with renewable energy trends and the urgency to slow the ravages of climate change.


Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Enbridge tunnel project is something that smacks of a 20th, not 21st Century mindset and works against efforts by Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel to safely keep Line 5 shut.