The Old, Hidden Pipeline at the Bottom of the Great Lakes
By Conor Mihell
At dawn, I launch my kayak and paddle into a velvety expanse of turquoise water. Here, in northern Michigan's Straits of Mackinac, Great Lakes Michigan and Huron meet like the middle of an hourglass. To the east, the rounded form of Mackinac Island is the centerpiece of an archipelago in Lake Huron.
According to an Ojibwe creation story, this is Mishee Makinakong, the Great Turtle, whose surfacing shell became a refuge for plants and animals as floodwaters surged in the days before time. Today, droves of ferries buzz to and from the island, a bustling summer tourist destination replete with kitschy fudge shops and horse-drawn carriages.
I'm paddling south, dwarfed by the Mackinac Bridge, a monolithic five-mile-long ribbon of green steel and gray concrete that connects Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. Lake Michigan sprawls westward. Its watery horizon shows the telltale dance of rising winds just as a wave splashes over my deck, reminding me to put away my camera. This isn't a place to multitask.
Currents deflect my course as I approach a towering bridge support. It's like paddling on the ocean, with steep waves and a strengthening tidelike flow. I angle my bow to compensate. Whitewater reflects from the concrete pillar, and eddies swirl in its wake. Even on this sunny June morning, the conditions hint at a destructive violence that makes me nervous.
Almost directly beneath my kayak runs Enbridge Line 5, twin 64-year-old pipelines at the bottom of the lakebed. Line 5 transports 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids daily for 645 miles through Wisconsin and Michigan to Canada. Enbridge, the Canadian oil transportation giant, operated Line 5 inconspicuously until 2010; that's when its sister pipeline, Line 6B, ruptured, pouring a million gallons of tar sands bitumen into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. It was the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history. Suddenly, the peril posed by vintage infrastructure carrying petrochemicals through the heart of North America's greatest supply of freshwater loomed very large.
University of Michigan hydrologist Dave Schwab has concluded that the Straits of Mackinac is "the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes." At any given time, one million gallons of petroleum products are contained in the 20-inch pipes that run along the lakebed. If one ruptured, oil would disperse with the currents that slosh back and forth through the straits. In Schwab's worst-case scenario, 720 miles of lakeshore would be devastated.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that in the event of a spill, no more than 40 percent of the oil could be recovered by deploying booms and "in-situ burning"—lighting surface slicks on fire, a technique used in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The success rate would plummet in the winter, when the Straits of Mackinac are sheathed in feet of ice. This apocalyptic vision was enough to convince more than 60 municipalities and all 12 of Michigan's Native American tribes that Line 5 should be decommissioned. Even Republican state attorney general Bill Schuette called for a timeline to shut down the pipeline.
"We know that Line 5 will ultimately be decommissioned," said David Holtz, the Sierra Club's Michigan Chapter chair and the coordinator of Oil and Water Don't Mix, a grassroots coalition of pipeline opponents with 30,000 supporters. "The only question is, will it be decommissioned before or after it ruptures?"
Line 5 is a product of the post–World War II construction boom, when oil companies installed pipelines across the country to fuel an increasingly global economy. "Michigan was the shortest path to get oil to market," Holtz explained. "We get all the risk; Enbridge gets the reward."
For Enbridge's part, spokesperson Michael Barnes said that Line 5 is "vital to the people of Michigan, who need energy to heat their homes and power their industries." (Holtz contends that the company has never documented this claim.) In the five years following the Marshall disaster, Barnes said, the company spent nearly $5 billion on maintenance, inspection, and leak detection: "This is the largest, most comprehensive and sophisticated maintenance and inspection program of any pipeline system in the world."
As for the underwater pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac, Barnes said, "Recent inspection reports show that Line 5, from an engineering and integrity perspective, is like new and in excellent condition."
Retired Dow chemical engineer Ed Timm has taken it upon himself to debunk such rosy claims. Timm, a resident of nearby Harbor Springs whose dark ponytail and youthful swagger belie his 72 years, started studying the pipeline and checking out Enbridge's claims out of curiosity. He dug up early construction journals documenting the hasty process whereby pipelines were "pulled," as the engineers called it, across the straits. He plotted modern imagery alongside original blueprints to show how lakebed sediments have shifted drastically over time, placing stress on sections of pipe. And he tabulated modern-water-current data to prove that the Straits of Mackinac are capable of producing double the 2.25-mile-per-hour currents envisioned by the original plans.
Timm also discovered a 2016 technical report that he calls a "smoking gun." The operating-easement agreement for Line 5 between Enbridge and the state of Michigan mandates that there be no unsupported spans longer than 75 feet. According to engineer Mario Salvadori, who reviewed the design, "The pipe must not be allowed to span a valley of more than 140 feet." But the 2016 report, conducted by the Ohio-based engineering firm Kiefner and Associates, mentions unsupported spans of up to 286 feet, indicating that over time the pipeline has shifted from its moorings. Timm showed me a graph of how the pipeline's resiliency diminishes across increasing lengths of unsupported spans. Just like a bent paper clip, he said, a pipeline with inadequate support will become fatigued as it flexes back and forth in moving water. "At that distance a steel pipeline basically turns into a noodle."
For Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, Line 5 touches a cultural nerve. The area a spill might affect coincides with tribal fishing areas and encompasses the watery heart of the indigenous creation story.
On Lake Michigan's east shore, the Grand Traverse Band operates a couple dozen boats, whose captains and crews make their livelihoods fishing year-round, said Desmond Berry, the band's natural resources manager. Fish is a staple of the indigenous diet and is recognized in the tribe's traditional clan system. "We are a fish nation," Berry said.
The Grand Traverse Band is one of five Chippewa and Ottawa tribes with commercial operations in the Mackinac Straits area. They harvest more than three million pounds of whitefish and lake trout annually. Commercial and recreational fishing on the Great Lakes contribute $2.5 billion to Michigan's economy, with tourists spending $660 million annually in the counties straddling the Straits of Mackinac, supporting 7,500 local jobs. "If there were a spill," Berry said, referring to the slogan on the state's license plate, "'Pure Michigan' would cease to exist."
Safeguarding freshwater was at the core of efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and is also at the root of Native American opposition to Line 5. Little Traverse Bay Bands member Jannan Cornstalk takes her responsibility as a water protector seriously. "Women have the ability to bring life into the world through our bodies," she said. "An embryo is held in a sack of water inside of us. That's our connection to the water."
Cornstalk was shocked when she learned about the sunken pipelines at Mackinac Straits. Since 2015, she's organized Labor Day demonstrations to coincide with a popular Mackinac Bridge walk, which includes canoe and kayak flotillas and, this year, an arts and culture festival. "I believe our water is in crisis," she said, pointing to the contaminated drinking water in Flint, which led to a federal state of emergency in 2016. "Clean water is a basic human right. Without it we are nothing."
The water calms and my mind wanders as I paddle back to shore. After the flood in the Ojibwe creation story, Sky Woman, the mother of humanity, settled on the Great Turtle's back and summoned the animals to help rebuild the earth. One at a time, the strongest swimmers—Beaver, Fisher, Marten, and Loon—plunged into the water, diving deep in search of soil. Each returned to the surface empty-handed and ashamed.
Then diminutive Muskrat volunteered. The other animals snickered, but Muskrat dove in anyway and stayed underwater an exceedingly long time. "The Muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil," recounted the late Ojibwe historian Basil Johnston. "Where the great had failed, the small succeeded."
Sky Woman spread the modicum of soil on the turtle's back and infused the new world with the breath of life. Turtle Island grew, teeming with grasses, flowers and trees. Finally, Sky Woman gave birth to the first Anishnabeg—the people—whom she instructed to live in harmony with all of creation, living and yet unborn.
The Mackinac area exerts an energy that pulls at the conscience of indigenous people and newcomers alike. A 2016 poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of Michigan voters do not support oil pipelines in the Great Lakes. Holtz hopes the state government will soon have a moment of reckoning like he did five years ago, when he represented the Sierra Club in an initial meeting to discuss Line 5 with other environmentalists. Holtz had recently retired from a career in media and "wasn't looking for a fight." Then he spent an autumn weekend alone at the straits. "I drove across the bridge and looked over the water," he recalled. "I decided I didn't want to be responsible for not stopping an oil spill in a beautiful, wonderful place that I love. I don't want that to be my legacy."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.
Climate change could make it harder to find a good cup of coffee, new research finds. A changing climate might shrink suitable areas for specialty coffee production without adaptation, making coffee taste blander and impacting the livelihoods of small farms in the Global South.
Published in Scientific Reports on Wednesday, the study focused on regions in Ethiopia, Africa's largest coffee-producing nation. Although studies have previously documented the impact of climate change on coffee production, what's less understood is how varying climates could change the flavors of specialty coffee, the researchers wrote.
The team aimed to fill this gap. Their results provide a glimpse into how future climate change could impact local regions and economies that rely on coffee cultivation, underscoring the value of local adaptation measures.
Researchers analyzed how 19 different climate factors, such as mean temperatures and rainfall levels, would affect the cultivation of five distinct specialty coffee types in the future, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reported. Although researchers found that areas suitable for growing "average quality coffee" may actually increase over time with climate change, regions where specialty coffee is grown will shrink — a pending problem in light of the global demand for high-quality coffee.
"This is an issue not just for coffee lovers, but for local agricultural value creation," Abel Chemura, the study's lead author, told the PIK.
Coffee profiles rely on specific climate patterns for their unique flavors, levels of acidity and fragrances. But in a warmer climate, the coffee cherry — the fruit picked from a coffee plant — matures faster than the bean inside, making for a lower quality cup of coffee, the PIK reported.
For example, the sought-after Yirgacheffe variety of coffee, which is cultivated in southwestern Ethiopia, could lose more than 40 percent of its suitable growth area by the end of the century, PIK reported. This could impact small farms and threaten Ethiopia's economy, the researchers noted.
"If one or more coffee regions lose their specialty status due to climate change this has potentially grave ramifications for the smallholder farmers in the region," Christoph Gornott, co-author of the study, told the PIK. "If they were forced to switch to growing conventional, less palatable and bitter coffee types, they would all of the sudden compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient." In a country where coffee exports account for nearly a third of all agricultural exports, "this could prove fatal," Gornott added.
Climate change impacts on coffee production are not unique to Ethiopia. In Columbia's mountainous coffee-growing regions, temperatures are warming by 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, according to Yale Environment 360. Extreme levels of precipitation, which are becoming more common, also impact production, as they spread insect and fungal diseases.
"In earlier times, the climate was perfect for coffee," one small farmer in Columbia told Yale Environment 360. "In the period of flowering, there was summer. During harvest, there was winter. But from 2008 onward, this changed and we now don't know when it will be summer, when the coffee will blossom."
But researchers say there are glimmers of hope, emphasizing the importance of local adaptation measures that are designed for particular climates and communities. For example, in regions where temperature is an important factor for specialty coffee cultivation, the researchers suggest improved agroforestry systems that could maintain canopy temperatures, a promising step toward sustaining the "availability and taste of one of the world's most beloved beverages and, more importantly, on economic opportunities in local communities of the Global South," Gornott concluded.
By Suzanne Cords
One day Lizzie, the first-person narrator of the novel, receives an old book as a gift, with a dedication wishing the reader to be among the survivors. Like the preppers who build bunkers and stockpile supplies in remote areas to be ready for the end of the world, Lizzie is convinced that the end of the world is definitely near in times of a threatening climate disaster.
Lizzie, who lives in New York with her husband and son, is a university campus librarian. She worries about almost everything: her brother, an ex-junkie, or her dental insurance and the future in the face of the apocalypse. She is obsessed with reading reference books and articles about climate change.
She also devours words of wisdom, including about Buddhist spirituality: "A visitor once asked the old monks on Mount Athos what they did all day, and was told: We have died and we are in love with everything." But nothing can lift her spirits.
'Lizzie Is Just Like Us'
Lizzie observes rich New Yorkers plan their move to regions that are less threatened by climate change, something she simply cannot afford. Sometimes she watches disaster movies, which lead her to worry even more.
Above all, she is a gifted observer of her fellow human beings. "Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do, does?"
Lizzie, the U.S. author told DW, is a bit like the rest of us — well aware of the climate crisis, but because she cares and worries about so many other things, that awareness falls by the wayside. That's how she felt herself, Jenny Offill said, but the more she looked into the issue, the more she saw a need for action on her part, too.
"I also was trying to see if there was a way to make it funny, because, you know, so much of the world of prepping and imagining disaster is actually sort of strangely funny."
The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 UK's Women's Prize for Fiction and has now been released in German translation.
Climate Activist With a Vision
But then, there is also this serious, scientifically based concern about what climate change means. In the past, says Offill, artists were the ones who would predict disasters; today it's the experts, as well as the students she teaches. In the end, their fears and their justified anger motivated her to take a closer look at the issue. Today, she is a climate activist herself, and is involved in initiatives along with many other artists.
Lizzie, the heroine of Weather, hasn't gotten that far. But she voices her fears, and that's a start. "Of course, the world continues to end," says Sylvia, a mentor of Lizzie's, at one point — and commences to water her garden. There is hope after all.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Jake Johnson
A federal appeals court on Tuesday dealt the final blow to former President Donald Trump's attempt to open nearly 130 million acres of territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas drilling.
Though the Trump administration appealed the ruling, President Joe Biden revoked his predecessor's 2017 order shortly after taking office, rendering the court case moot. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the Trump administration's appeal.
"Because the terms of the challenged Executive Order are no longer in effect, the relevant areas of the [Outer Continental Shelf] in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Atlantic Ocean will be withdrawn from exploration and development activities," the court said in its order.
Erik Grafe of Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of advocacy groups that challenged Trump's order, said in a statement that "we welcome today's decision and its confirmation of President Obama's legacy of ocean and climate protection."
"As the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage," Grafe continued. "One obvious place for immediate action is America's Arctic, including the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic, which the previous administration sought to relegate to oil development in a series of last-minute decisions that violate bedrock environmental laws."
VICTORY: 9th Circuit ends fight over President Trump's illegal attempt to open up 128 million acres of Atlantic & A… https://t.co/TvYVt2F1jO— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1618347073.0
In January, Biden ordered a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, a decision environmentalists hailed as a positive step that should be made permanent.
"We call on President Biden to keep his promise: a full and complete ban on fracking and fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Full stop," Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said at the time. "The climate crisis requires it and he promised it."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By 2035, every new car and truck sold in the U.S. could be an EV, a new report says.
Accelerations in technology and especially battery affordability, paired with new policy, mean the dramatic transition would save American drivers $2.7 trillion by 2050, an average savings of $1,000 per household per year.
The ramp up in EV production would also create 2 million new jobs by 2035. Battery prices have fallen 74% since 2014, and their unexpectedly rapid fall is a key driver of the cost savings.
EVs are far simpler mechanically, and more efficient, than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which translates to reduced climate pollution and lower costs for consumers.
Strengthened vehicle efficiency standards and investment in fast charging infrastructure are needed to accelerate the transition, which would prevent 150,000 premature deaths and save $1.3 trillion in health environmental costs by 2050.
For a deeper dive:
Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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