An aging pipeline that carries oil along the bottom of the ecologically sensitive and turbulent Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, is in such a state of disrepair it could burst at any moment and cause catastrophic damage to the Great Lakes, environmentalists warn.
Line 5, a 1,000-kilometre-long pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge, carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids a day from Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ont., where it is shipped to other refineries in Ontario and Quebec.
It’s at the centre of a politically charged dispute between Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who’s ordered what she calls the “ticking time bomb” to be shut down, and Canadian officials, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who’ve sided with Enbridge in insisting it’s safe to keep running.
“Over the past year, I have both written and spoken to the Governor to express my disappointment and stress the importance of Line 5 in ensuring economic, environmental and energy security to the entire Great Lakes Region,” Ford said in a statement to CBC News.
“Our government believes pipelines are a safe way to transport essential fuels across the Great Lakes, operating in accordance with the highest pipeline safety standards.”
Enbridge says Line 5 is safe and saves the hassle of transporting huge amounts of fuel by truck or train.
But Michelle Woodhouse, water program manager at Toronto-based Environmental Defence, said it’s time to put politics aside and cut through Enbridge’s “manufactured narrative.” She says the danger the pipeline poses to the Great Lakes is too risky to take “a gamble.”
Line 5 has leaked oil before
Line 5 was designed in 1953 to have a lifespan of 50 years, or until 2003. Eighteen years later, it’s still running, and has had its fair share of problems, said Woodhouse.
“This is a very old, deteriorating, dangerous pipeline that has already leaked significant amounts of oil into the surrounding lands and water that it crosses through,” she said.
Since 1953, Line 5 has leaked 29 times, spilling 4.5 million litres of oil into the environment, according to media reports.
The pipeline has also repeatedly violated safety standards, said the State of Michigan’s court filings against Enbridge in 2020. Recently, a ship’s anchor struck and damaged the pipeline in 2018 and contractors mistakenly damaged its supports in 2019, which wasn’t discovered for a year, Michigan’s complaint said.
A spill would cause “devastating damage” to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan’s shorelines, compromising drinking water, fisheries, businesses and homes, said Woodhouse.
Dianne Saxe, the former environmental commissioner of Ontario and now deputy leader of the Ontario Green Party, said if Line 5 did leak in the Straits of Mackinac, it would create “an enormous cloud of pollution” that would disrupt intricate fish ecosystems and also flow downstream to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
“It’s running under one of the most dangerous places in the Great Lakes, where there is highly turbulent waters,” Saxe said.
A University of Michigan study from 2014 corroborates this. Researchers found strong currents in the straits, which switch directions every few days, would contaminate shorelines up to 80 kilometres away within a few days.
Enbridge says pipeline in good condition
Enbridge spokesperson Tracy Larsson said every year, the company inspects Line 5’s twin pipes that cross the Straits of Mackinac, which are made of “thick seamless steel” and have been shown to be in good condition. She also said that Line 5’s lifespan is determined by inspections and maintenance, not when it was built.
Enbridge is also spending $500 million Cdn to build a tunnel through the straits to cover and protect Line 5.
“Ultimately, the Great Lakes Tunnel is the common sense solution to meeting Michigan’s energy needs while protecting the Great Lakes, our communities and waterways,” Larsson said.
However, the upgrade likely won’t be done for years, as President Joe Biden’s administration recently ordered a rigorous environmental review.
Natural Resources Canada told CBC News the alternative to Line 5 would be shipping fuel on 800 rail cars and 2,000 trucks a day across Canada, plus 15,000 trucks in the U.S.
“These options are less safe, more polluting, and more expensive,” NRC said in a statement.
Woodhouse called these figures “completely overblown” and said there’s capacity within Canada’s existing transportation system to transport the oil and natural gas to meet the region’s energy needs.
She said tankers and trucks should only be a temporary solution as Canada moves away from fossil fuels, as it has pledged to do in its climate commitments.
“We know about where things are headed with climate change and global warming,” Woodhouse said. “We have to get things done ASAP. And so the fact that these corporations and their allies are doing things like signing deals that basically send a signal that we don’t care, it’s very unsettling.”
‘There is no co-operation’
Whitmer recently revoked the 1953 easement that had allowed Enbridge to run Line 5 through Michigan and gave the company a May 12 deadline to stop operations, although it has not been enforced. The two parties remain locked in a court-ordered mediation process that will wrap up in August, although it’s unclear when the dispute will be resolved.
Enbridge said in a news release earlier this year it has no intentions of shutting down Line 5, and that Whitmer’s actions are unlawful and ignore science and evidence.
Whitmer’s administration maintains Michigan can’t trust Enbridge after another of its pipelines in the state ruptured in 2010, “causing one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history,” press secretary Bobby Leddy said in a statement.
“If Enbridge continues to operate the pipeline beyond the deadline, the state will seek to disgorge the company of its profits earned while unlawfully trespassing on state land,” Leddy said.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said if Line 5 is shut down, his city would lose up to 5,000 well-paying jobs. He said the action would also significantly impact communities across Ontario and Quebec that use the oil and natural gas to manufacture more than 600 products.
He said every time he’s attempted to raise his concerns with Whitmer, she hasn’t responded.
“The governor of Michigan has done incredible damage to the relationship between Ontario and Michigan,” Bradley said. “And that’s what’s disturbing. There is no co-operation when there should be.”