Line 5’s Failing Design – Anchor Supports, Anchor Strikes, and the Rising Risk of an Oil Spill Disaster in the Great Lakes

Above: An underwater image from Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge shows deep grooves in the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom, going up and over one of the twin Line 5 oil pipelines and leaving damage to the pipe’s outer coating, the result of an April 1, 2018, anchor strike.
(Photo: Enbridge via U.S. Senate)

By Jim Olson

The disclosure by Enbridge that 81 feet of Line 5 has been undermined by powerful currents and is slumping points to something far more serious—and dangerous: The 66-year-old dual pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are failing and also at risk of rupture from a ship’s anchor drag that hooks and rips the pipeline wide open. It is also a violation of the law that governs the protection of the public trust in the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them.

Since at least 2001, Enbridge has known of these risky violations of the easement that the State of Michigan granted in 1953 to conditionally authorized Enbridge to pump oil through twin pipelines, and changed the pipeline’s design by adding anchor supports to shore it up.

At first, it was a few anchors, but between then and now, Enbridge has added a total of 202 supports that elevate 3 miles of dual oil pipelines that were designed to lay on the lakebed of the Straits. The former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) under the Snyder Administration was an accomplice allowing the supports, but without requiring authorization under Michigan law based on a necessary risk, impact, and alternative assessment.

Rather, the MDEQ until now has looked only at the impact to the lakebed from the screw anchors, nothing more. In other words, a completely new design is being built in the Straits for this dangerous Line 5 that carries nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil daily, and the design has never been evaluated or authorized by the DEQ, now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). 

The State of Michigan now finally recognizes the greater risk of an anchor strike from the change in design; one dented the dual lines in three places in April 2018, and the State cited this serious risk in its lawsuit filed June 27 against Enbridge to shut down Line 5.

With 3 miles (almost 40 percent) of the Line 5 crude oil lines in the Straits now 2 to 4 feet above the lakebed, the next strike has a strong likelihood of hooking and rupturing the lines; causing a massive release that will devastate hundreds of miles of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan; shut down Mackinac Island, ferries, ships, drinking water, fishing, boating, and recreation; and destroy the habitat and ecosystem and economy for years to come—to wit: the Deep Horizons blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, we have new leadership in Governor Gretchen Whitmer (call her office at 517-373-3400, or share your opinion here) and EGLE Director Liesl Clark (call her at 800-292-4706), who can correct this attack on the public trust rights of citizens in the Great Lakes, and restore the rule of law that was abandoned by the Snyder administration for 8 years.  What should you do?  Email or call Governor Whitmer and Director Clark , and urge them to take action immediately by sending a letter to Enbridge demanding it apply for authorization of this major change in design not covered by the 1953 easement, and never evaluated or allowed.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor.

One comment on “Line 5’s Failing Design – Anchor Supports, Anchor Strikes, and the Rising Risk of an Oil Spill Disaster in the Great Lakes

  1. Jeanne Sekely on

    Dear Governor Whitmer and EGLE Director Clark:

    Repeatly, Enbridge has violated its original agreement with the State of Michigan and Michigan citizens by being out of compliance with its initial design. What worked in the 1950s is not working in 2019. As a registered nurse myself, there is no excuse, legally or morally, for being out of compliance. The Line 5 dual pipeline was not designed well enough for the stressors at the bottom of the Straits. Repeatly “jimmy-rigging” it post-installation is only adding to the problem. Adding over 200 anchor supports and thus allowing it to leave the lakebed is adding further risk: torquing pressures and risk of anchor strikes from human error are possible and probable.

    When Enbridge’s line ruptured near Kalamazoo, the control room engineers misinterpreted the sensors and pressures for over 10 hours, increased the flow of the tar sand products, and caused the worst land-based oil spill in the history of the US. Enbridge is gambling that Line 5 will hold together year by year. I don’t believe their assessment of its safety and believe their goal is to keep pumping through Michigan as long as absolutely possible. Enbridge needs Michigan, but I doubt Michigan homeowners need Enbridge as much as they want us in the Upper Peninsula to believe. For that reason I urge you to shut down Line 5 as soon as you can.

    I have friends with business on Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City, and in Cheboygan. I travel across the bridge 4-6 times per year. Our family cottage is on Lake Huron. The clean waters of the Great Lakes are priceless. Without pure water Michigan would be a mediocre state with stagnant tourism and polluted resources. We can’t let that happen!

    Thank you,
    Jeanne Sekely


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