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The Mackinac bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac. Julie Falk / Flickr

Environmental Groups Blast Michigan Officials for 'Trust' in Pipeline Operator

Environmental groups are attacking an agreement between Michigan and Canadian oil transport company Enbridge, Inc. that set a timeline to determine the future of a controversial pipeline running across a channel where Lakes Huron and Michigan come together.

The 645-mile pipeline, Line 5, lies at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, a five-mile-long environmentally sensitive stretch of water that serves as a center piece in Michigan's tourist industry. It cuts through the state as it runs from western to eastern Canada, bringing 23 million gallons of oil and liquid natural gas across the straits between Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas—an area noted for its choppy waters, unpredictable currents and subzero temperatures.

"I can't imagine another place in the Great Lakes where it'd be more devastating to have an oil spill," Dave Schwab, an expert in hydrodynamics from University of Michigan, told a Motherboard correspondent in 2015.

Monday's agreement between Gov. Rick Snyder and Enbridge was designed to address immediate concerns about the 64-year-old twin pipeline. Under the agreement, Enbridge is required to halt pipeline operations if waves in the straits reach eight feet or higher for more than an hour.

The deal, which doesn't preclude a permanent shut down of Line 5, requires Enbridge to evaluate three options for routing the pipeline through a tunnel or trench on or beneath the lakebed by June 2018. Enbridge also said it would take steps to prevent pipeline damage from ship anchors, and increase its monitoring by placing cameras and other devices near the pipeline. It would also expedite plans to detect potential ruptures and respond to spills.

"Business as usual by Enbridge is not acceptable and we are going to ensure the highest level of environmental safety standards are implemented to protect one of Michigan's most valuable natural resources," Snyder said in a statement. Michigan officials and Enbridge agreed to determine the future of Line 5 by Aug. 15, 2018.

The Republican governor's administration has resisted critics' demands to order the lines decommissioned, but that option "is still on the table," said Valerie Brader, executive director of the Michigan Agency for Energy, according to the AP.

But the agreement comes as a growing bipartisan ensemble has voiced criticism for Line 5. Last January, U.S. representatives Dave Trott (R-Mich.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced legislation calling for a shutdown of the pipeline if federal agencies determine it poses a threat to the Great Lakes. In Michigan, Republican state senator Rick Jones introduced similar legislation in March.

Environmental groups complain that the agreement is partial to Enbridge and a plan to keep the pipeline in a tunnel beneath the seabed.

"Citizens are demanding real action," Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, told the Detroit Free Press. "Governor Snyder and Attorney General (Bill) Schuette have the power to shut Line 5 down; they simply are not using it."

Enbridge has a history of opacity inside the Great Lake state. In October, it was revealed that the company had kept information to itself for three years about areas on the pipeline missing protective coating.

The company's past in Michigan and neighboring states is also riddled with oil spills. A federal data analysis in April showed that Line 5 has leaked more than 29 times in its 64-year history—spilling more than one million gallons of oil and gas liquids. Between 1968 and 2015 the spills varied in size from 285,600 gallons to eight gallons.

In 2010, about 240 miles south of the Straits of Mackinaw, another Enbridge pipeline, Line 6B, ruptured, spewing one million gallons of toxic tar sands oil on a 40-mile stretch of river—the largest ever inland oil spill in the U.S. The river was closed for nearly two years for the more than one billion-dollar cleanup. Enbridge paid $2.8 billion for cleanup costs and other fines and penalties associated with the Line 6B spill.

"Our state leaders continue to place an enormous amount of trust in Enbridge to operate it [Line 5] responsibly," Wozniak told the AP. "Even while the company continues to repeatedly break that trust."