Tag: Line 5

Watch How Spilled Oil Could Spread Across the Straits

A new animated video by the University of Michigan and the National Wildlife Federation shows how devastating an oil spill beneath the Straits of Mackinac would be for the Great Lakes, wildlife, and communities. The animation shows that if an oil spill occurs, oil could reach popular tourist destinations like Mackinac Island, blanket 50 miles of Lake Huron shoreline, and reach Lake Michigan landmarks such as Beaver Island.

The University of Michigan research scientist says that “one million gallons is conservatively the amount of oil that resides in the pipelines in the Straits at any time.”

Patagonia Supports FLOW

Each yeapatagoniar, Patagonia pledges 1% of their sales to the protection and restoration of the natural environment—regardless of the health of their sales or the economy. They call it the Earth Tax. This year, we identified 741 grassroots environmental groups in 18 countries and gave them $6.2 million in cash to do important work to restore rivers and forests, stop mines, protect endangered wildlife and habitat, and mitigate the effects of climate change. FLOW is proud to be among Patagonia’s grantees, and one of two Michigan nonprofits they recommend supporting. See the full breadth of their environmental and social efforts over the past year, including a list of all Patagonia grant recipients here.


FLOW is excited to be collaborating with Patagonia filmmakers on a new film about Line 5, coming in Spring of 2016.

Great Lakes Lawyers & Scientists Urge Gov. Snyder & AG Schuette: Imminent Hazard Requires Immediate Actions to Eliminate Oil Risk in Straits of Mackinac

Filling a void left by the state, a Great Lakes law and policy group and its scientific advisors released a report today calling on the Snyder administration to take interim steps – including the immediate temporary halt of oil flowing through two aging pipelines in the Mackinac Straits – and swiftly pursue an “action plan” to prevent an oil spill that likely could not be cleaned up and would threaten the state and regional economy, a vital fishery, and the drinking water supply for Mackinac Island and St. Ignace.

“The Michigan Task Force and Attorney General Schuette have determined that the magnitude of harm from a release of oil in the Straits is unacceptable, and that the days of these aging pipelines for transport of oil are limited,” said Jim Olson, a Traverse City attorney and President of FLOW.  “According to FLOW’s scientific experts, the transport of oil under the Straits is an imminent hazard that is at the highest level risk. Based on standard hazardous management practices, this means that interim measures that significantly lower the risk must be immediately implemented.  This also requires an immediate independent evaluation of alternative pipeline routes, capacity and logistics to eliminate the high risk of serious harm.  Until this evaluation is done, the reasonable and prudent thing to do is to halt the transport of crude oil under the Straits.”

“An effective oil spill response and recovery is virtually impossible, particularly in winter months when the Straits are covered with four feet of ice,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s Executive Director.  “According to our scientists, shutting off the flow of oil under the Straits won’t interfere with natural gas liquids, such as propane used for home heating, because they do not pose the same risk to the Straits and would continue to flow to residents in the Upper and northern Lower Peninsulas.”

The 33-page report on the Enbridge “Line 5” pipelines points to new findings, including the pipeline company’s own admission that tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day could leak into the Mackinac Straits undetected, to conclude that an “imminent harm” to the Great Lakes exists and must be stopped. The report also finds that at least one of the Straits pipelines is dented despite Enbridge’s reassurances otherwise and that the wooden slats meant to surround and protect the outside of the pipelines are missing.

“Analysis of these issues, as documented by several reports, now leads me to the conclusion that Line 5 is far more likely to present an imminent threat to health and property than not,” said Ed Timm, PhD., PE, a former senior scientist and consultant to Dow Chemical’s Environmental Operations Business and member of the FLOW expert team.  “Immediate action should be taken to assure the safety of Line 5 while the legal deliberations go on.”

The report released by FLOW, an independent nonprofit organization that evaluates Great Lakes scientific and policy issues, is intended to fill and strengthen the gap left by a state task force report issued in July that made important recommendations for assessing the risk and seeking alternatives to the Enbridge oil pipelines, but lacked action steps and a timetable. The FLOW report charts a course with clear actions to the Snyder administration and Attorney General Schuette who are charged with the responsibility of implementing the state task force recommendations and protecting the Mackinac Straits and Great Lakes from any release of oil with serious and catastrophic consequences.

The FLOW report concludes that the current use of Line 5 for the transport of crude oil “poses a high level of risk and imminent high magnitude of harm,” and proposes a specific action plan to eliminate the harm, including to:

  1. Promptly conduct an independent expert alternatives assessment regarding transport of crude oil in Line 5 through the Straits segment, as called for by the state task force;
  2. Convene and complete immediately an independent risk analysis based on credible, worst-case scenarios;
  3. Require adequate financial assurances and an approved emergency response plan by independent qualified experts that conform to the level of risk and worst-case scenarios;
  4. Require immediate submission of additional verifiable information from Enbridge and other qualified and independent sources.
  5. Take immediate enforcement actions against Enbridge to address any material violations of the state-granted 1953 easement allowing Enbridge to occupy state bottomlands in the Straits.
  6. Exercise the full authority under our constitution and laws, including common law and the public trust, that eliminate or prevent the failure of Line 5 under the Straits.

Built in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration, the aging Enbridge pipelines push nearly 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the Mackinac Straits, which the company uses as a shortcut for its Line 5 route from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario. Canadian-based Enbridge is infamous for its Line 6B pipeline that corroded and spilled 1 million gallons of heavy tar sands oil in 2010 into the Kalamazoo River watershed near Marshall, Michigan.

Enbridge estimates that a “worst-case” spill from Line 5 in winter would dump up to 360,000 gallons of oil in the Mackinac Straits and would cost as much as $900 million to clean up, not including any damages to persons, property, or natural resources for which Enbridge is liable, nor for any fines or penalties. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on-site oil cleanup coordinator said in March 2015 that in good conditions, no more than half of the oil spilled in open water is ever recovered. The U.S. Coast Guard Commandant in April testified to Congress that he is “not comfortable” with the current contingency plans for a worst‐case spill in the Great Lakes.

In the report, FLOW’s science and technical advisors reached several key findings, including that Enbridge’s own documents filed with the state show that 140,000 gallons of oil per day can leak into the Great Lakes at the Mackinac Straits from Enbridge’s aging Line 5 oil pipelines without Enbridge detecting it or triggering its “automatic” shutoff valves because of the technological limits of its equipment.

“A permanent solution – eliminating the Line 5 Straits crossing – may take time, but short-term action to immediately reduce the risk should be undertaken.” said Rick Kane, a hazardous materials risk-management specialist and member of the FLOW expert team. “The Line 5 crossing is a high risk due to the severe consequences of a leak and probability that a leak could occur from a number of causes, including a large failure or a smaller failure that would leak over a number of days or weeks below the system detection threshold, potentially releasing thousands of gallons per day, unknown to operators.”

The experts also found, similar to the findings underlying a recent formal notice sent by the National Wildlife Federation to the federal Department of Transportation, that Enbridge has never been required to do, and has never done, a competent emergency response plan based on a full and worst-case scenario of a rupture or release of crude oil in the Straits. In addition, Enbridge lacks sufficient capacity at the local level to respond, particularly in the winter when a response or clean up could not be done.  The expert team also found that there is a lack of sufficient structural supports and wooden slat covers to protect Line 5 under the Straits, exposing the pipeline to currents, abrasion, and other failures.

As Long as Oil Flows through the Straits Pipelines, the Great Lakes Remain at Unacceptable Risk

The Great Lakes are no safer from an oil pipeline spill today despite yesterday’s release of the State of Michigan Pipeline Task Force’s 80-page report and recommendations.

The Task Force report included four recommendations directed at Enbridge’s twin 62-year-old petroleum pipelines located on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac: (1) Ban transportation of heavy crude oil through the Straits pipelines; (2) Require an independent risk analysis and full insurance coverage for the pipelines; (3) Require an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing pipelines; (4) Obtain more inspection data from Enbridge relating to the pipelines.

Yet, oil still flows through Line 5.  The Task Force rejected shutting down Line 5 while gathering additional information on the basis that they had “inadequate information at this time to fully evaluate the risks presented by the Straits Pipelines.” (P. 57)

Impose Emergency Measures Immediately

At a minimum, however, the Task Force should impose immediate emergency measures on the pipeline given (1) potential violations of the 1953 Easement related to Enbridge’s inability to demonstrate that it has adequate liability coverage to cover all damages from an oil spill; (2) the Coast Guard’s admission that it is inadequately prepared to clean up an open water spill in freshwater let alone under frozen winter conditions; (3) Enbridge’s failure to disclose inspection, maintenance, and repair records to document internal and external corrosion rates under the Straits and inherent limitations related to inline inspection tools.

The question remains: how much more information do we need to unveil before our trustee – the State – takes swift protective action that prioritizes the paramount interests of citizens over private corporations?

The Task Force and the public have rejected the idea that the Straits Pipelines can last indefinitely.  In fact, the Attorney General Bill Schuette has declared that “the days of letting two controversial oil pipelines operate under the Straits of Mackinac are numbered.”  This is hopeful news, but every day counts, and until we have specific measures in place that prevent a catastrophic spill, the State of Michigan is placing the Great Lakes at risk.

FLOW Responds to Task Force Report

LANSING – This morning Attorney General Bill Schuette and DEQ Director Dan Wyant released the long-awaited Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force report, outlining specific recommendations to address the significant risks surrounding a Canadian pipeline company’s controversial twin pipelines (known as “Line 5” or the Straits Pipelines).  The Task Force report establishes a framework to determine whether the transport of oil through the pipelines under the 5-mile long Straits segment is prudent or justified, especially when it appears other pipelines or routes could deliver the oil to markets without endangering the Great Lakes and the public and private uses that depend on them.

Four of the 13 recommendations are directed at the 62-year-old Straits Pipelines:

  • prevent the transportation of heavy crude oil through the Straits Pipelines;
  • require an independent risk analysis and adequate financial assurance for the Straits Pipelines;
  • require an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing Straits Pipelines; and
  • obtain additional information from Enbridge on personnel, products transported, inspections, and repairs.

FLOW – a Great Lakes policy and research center located in Traverse City – credits the Task Force for seriously considering and incorporating many public interest recommendations like the need for an independent alternatives analysis.  However, the report lacks a timeline for implementation of the recommendations, enforcement measures under public trust law, and a clear process on conducting the independent alternatives analysis.  Further, there are no interim measures to keep the Great Lakes safe while the state continues to gather information.  FLOW urges Attorney General Schuette and Director Wyant to implement these additional recommendations and establish a transparent public process for evaluation under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act.

“The report is promising and surprisingly frank, recognizing the state’s legal authority and duty under the 1953 Easement and public trust law.  However, it doesn’t recognize the urgency of the situation in the Straits,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, “Allowing the oil to continue flowing while awaiting further information is simply unacceptable given the ongoing risk and magnitude of harm to the Great Lakes.” FLOW expert Ed Timm observed, “Line 5 becomes more hazardous with each passing day.”

The 62-year old pipeline is owned and operated by Enbridge under a 1953 Easement that reserved ownership and the public’s rights in the Great Lakes to the State of Michigan.  Enbridge ships liquid natural gas and oil through Line 5, and its use is limited by what a reasonably prudent person would do to protect public safety, public property, and private property from harm.

According to FLOW expert Rick Kane, “there is an “end-of-life” for the Line 5 Straits Crossing that can be established by proper planning and implementation.  An alternatives assessment with an aggressive time schedule is needed to protect the Great Lakes from an unplanned incident such as those that have occurred with other aging pipelines.”  The Enbridge Line 5 pipelines push nearly 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the Straits of Mackinac, which the company uses as a shortcut for its Line 5 route from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario.  A July 2014 study by the University of Michigan called the Straits “the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes” and depicted the prospect of a plume from a million-gallon oil spill in the Straits stretching for 85 miles – from Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island to Mackinac Island to Rogers City down the Lake Huron shore.

FLOW and partner organizations, including National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, and Oil & Water Don’t Mix Coalition have submitted reports and made presentations to the Task Force during the last year.  FLOW’s expert report released in April 2015 identified grave structural concerns related to corrosion, welding and coating failures, and invasive quagga mussel impacts weakening the steel pipelines.  “Emergency measures are needed, and they are needed now.” said FLOW expert Gary Street.

“Attorney General Schuette, Director Wyant, and the Task Force should be commended for their hard work on the report and the direction of these recommendations,” said Jim Olson, Founder and President of FLOW.  “Our state officials are legally recognized trustees who have a solemn duty to protect the Great Lakes from harm.  If our leaders quickly and prudently implement these recommendations, it should put an end to the transport of oil in the Straits because the risk is unacceptable to the citizens and well-being of Michigan.  At the moment, there are absolutely no executive orders, letters to Enbridge, or even suggestions for procedures, notices, and decisions to implement the Task Force recommendations.  The Attorney General, Director DEQ, and state officials must establish immediately a procedure, with public participation, transparency, and accountability under rule of law and the public trust in the Great Lakes.  Failure to do so, would be a clear violation of their public trust responsibilities.  We urge them to implement a timely, fair, and meaningful process to bring these recommendations on Line 5 and Enbridge.”

Over the last year, FLOW has elevated the State of Michigan’s leading role in addressing these petroleum pipelines that were built on state-owned bottomlands under a 1953 easement held in public trust (see FLOW’s July 1, 2014 letter to the State). The State has changed its position and accepted that they as trustees of the Great Lakes have jurisdiction over these pipelines in addition to the federal pipeline agency, PHMSA (Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). Without the State of Michigan’s express authorization under the 1953 Easement and public trust law, Enbridge’s predecessor, Lake Head Pipe Line Company, could never have built these pipelines on the bottomland of the Straits of Mackinac.  As trustee, the State of Michigan must ensure the interests of the public by protecting the waters for citizens’ use and enjoyment in perpetuity.

“Extraordinary measures for management, communication, continuous monitoring, inspections, and emergency response are typical actions regulators take and industry expects when faced with major environmental and economic risks like Line 5,” said Kane.


For more information, visit our Line 5 page.

Can the Mackinac Bridge be used to support the pipelines?

Gary Street bio photo







By Gary Street,

Chemical Engineer & FLOW Consultant


What if the two twenty inch diameter pipelines that cross the Straits (part of Enbridge Line 5) were hung from the Mackinac Bridge, rather than immersed in water in nearly 300 feet deep? The engineers on the staff at FLOW took a look at the concept. Is it possible? Does it make the situation less environmentally hazardous? What impact will it have on the Bridge? Was the Bridge designed for the extra load?

So we did some calculations.

The result: In addition to the regular car and truck traffic, for which the Bridge was designed, the pipelines would put the added weight of an additional 2000 to 3500 automobiles onto the Bridge. And not just for a short time, but continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

Almost certainly the Bridge was not designed for all this extra weight. And what if the lines were to rupture? The oil still goes into the Straits.

Clearly, not a good idea!

KOEHN: Michigan citizens deserve full transparency from Enbridge

A great article calling for full transparency from Enbridge and the State in relation to the Line 5 oil pipelines, written by Sarah Koehn (a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, and the policy intern at West Michigan Environmental Action Council), was recently published in the Grand Haven Tribune. She concludes:

“The people of Michigan deserve full transparency and a proactive, thorough process to assess the risk of moving oil through the Great Lakes in an aged pipeline. Taking Enbridge’s word on its safety is not good enough. The state of Michigan should act decisively to protect our most valuable natural resource.”

Read the full article here.

Mayors of Traverse City and Mackinac Island Urge Gov. Snyder to Regulate 61-Year-Old Oil Pipelines in Straits


Traverse City’s Mayor Michael Estes urged Gov. Snyder in a letter this week to take action as the state’s primary trustee and to regulate twin 61-year-old pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac that transport about 23 million gallons of oil every day.

Traverse City’s letter follows a similar letter that Mayor Doud of the City of Mackinac Island sent to the governor’s office just last month.  A catastrophic oil spill in the Straits would surround Mackinac Island and affect an 85-mile stretch from Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island to Rogers City in Lake Huron, according to University of Michigan’s recent dispersion model.

“Due to our proximity to the pipelines, a spill of almost any size would surround the Island in oil, shut down all ferry service, and leave residents without a viable drinking water supply for an indefinite period of time,” stated Mayor Doud in her letter to the Governor. “As Mayor of this unique community, I cannot stand by and simply hope that the pipelines pose no threat.”

Mayor Estes heralded the importance of water to Traverse City’s economy and way of life in his letter to the governor: “Lake Michigan’s clean water and magnificent shores are the backbone of Traverse City…  In 2013, tourism alone generated more than $1.23 billion in economic activity and was responsible for maintaining nearly 12,000 jobs in the Traverse City area.  Allowing the integrity of these waters to fall by the wayside would thus have dire consequences for the economy of the Traverse City area and subsequently the State of Michigan.”

This issue is a high priority for Mayor Estes who is a U.S. Michigan Advisor to the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, which issued a resolution in the spring for the replacement of Enbridge’s pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

The State of Michigan issued an easement to pipeline owner and operator, Enbridge, in 1953 to place two twenty-inch-diameter oil pipelines on the state-owned bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.  As owner and trustee, the state has a perpetual duty to the public to protect these waters and public uses of drinking, swimming, fishing, navigation, and recreation.  This means the state must ensure that that these private oil pipelines never harm or impair the state public waters.

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, commended both Mayors Estes and Doud saying, “Mayor Estes and Mayor Doud are serving their cities well by taking this leadership role and raising this important Great Lakes issue before the Governor who is our primary state trustee and steward of our waters.”

FLOW is a lead partner in the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign – comprised of over 17 environmental organizations, businesses, and tribes – that authored a letter to the Governor, Attorney General, and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director in July, calling on state leaders to ensure Enbridge is in full compliance with the State’s 1953 easement.  The letter requested the state to require Enbridge to file an application under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and conclude that these oil pipelines will not impair or substantially harm the public trust waters or bottomlands in Lake Michigan.



Desmog: Concerns Mount About 61-Year Old Enbridge Pipeline in the Great Lakes

Click here to read the article on Desmog

By Derek Leahy, Desmog Canada

March 6, 2014

Of the 30 million Canadians and Americans depending on the Great Lakes for water very few would guess there is an oil pipeline sitting in their drinking water supply. It is anyone’s guess if this 61-year old Enbridge pipeline, known as Line 5, is pumping bitumen from the Alberta oilsands through the Great Lakes.

U.S. pipeline regulations do not require Enbridge to make public if Line 5 is transporting bitumen. Enbridge says the pipeline carries light crude oil mainly from the Bakken shale in North Dakota. The pipeline begins in Superior, Wis., and cuts through Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, in the U.S. to get to its end destination of Sarnia, Ont.

“(U.S.) Pipelines in general are considered a national security risk,” says Beth Wallace, a regional coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“So PHMSA is not willing to provide records of Line 5 that provide detailed information about the location, integrity or product transported,” Wallace told DeSmog Canada. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) oversees pipelines for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The National Wildlife Federation conducted an underwater dive last year to investigate and film the condition of Line 5. The federation discovered some of the pipeline’s steel supports meant to keep Line 5 secured to the bottum of the Straits had broken. Other sections of the pipeline were covered with debris.

Line 5 To Transport Bitumen Soon, If Not Already

The National Wildlife Federation believes if Line 5 is not transporting bitumen now, it will be in the near future.

“If Enbridge is granted authority to increase capacity on the Alberta Clipper pipeline, there will be an incredible increase in the amount of heavy bitumen pushed into Superior, Wisconsin, where Line 5 begins,” Wallace says.

A U.S. decision on Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper is expected next year. Earlier this week, Enbridge announced its Line 3 pipeline will be replaced by a new pipeline with expanded capacity. Both pipelines ship oil and bitumen from Alberta to Superior, Wis.

Concerns of a Bitumen Spill in the Great Lakes

Residents of Michigan experienced the worst bitumen spill in U.S. history when Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured, spilling more than three million liters of bitumen and oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Bitumen — the tar-like form of petroleum in oilsands —sinks in water, unlike conventional oil. Enbridge has dredged the Kalamazoo multiple times in an attempt to remove the bitumen from the river. The cleanup is still going on four years after the spill.

The environmental damage a bitumen spill can cause plus Enbridge’s spill record — estimated at eight hundred pipeline spills between 1999 and 2010 — has Canadians worried about a Line 5 rupture as well. Georgian Bay, Ontario’s most vibrant bay, makes up the eastern part of Lake Huron.

“We are very concerned about Line 5,” says Therese Trainor of the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Area Council in Manitoulin Island, Ont.

“Georgian Bay is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. We have flora and fauna here you cannot find anywhere else. We could lose this in an oil spill,” Trainor told DeSmog Canada.

There is no land between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to stop the Straits of Mackinac’sswift water currents from spreading an oil spill into either lake. The National Wildlife Federation estimates in its Sunken Hazard report that if Line 5 has a large oil spill it could reach Georgian Bay.

Condtions in Straits of Mackinac Make it a Terrible Place For A Oil Spill

“This (Straits of Mackinac) is a terrible place for a rupture,” says pipeline safety expert Richard Kuprewicz.

Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert with 40 years of experience in the energy sector, says pipeline ruptures are difficult enough to cleanup, but conditions in the Straits of Mackinac would make things much worse. Line 5 at its deepest is 90 metres underwater and the straits freeze over in the winter.

What emergency responders could do about a burst pipeline nearly 100 metres below in the either stormy or frozen straits is questionable.

“Pardon the expression, but cleaning up and containing a Line 5 rupture in the straits would be a crap shoot,” says Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation.

There are no reports of Line 5 rupturing in the Straits of Mackinac. The 76-centimeter (30-inch) wide pipeline splits into two smaller 50-centimeter (20-inch) wide pipelines with thicker pipe walls (2.5 cm) in the straits. An external coal-tar coating minimizes corrosion on the pipeline. Coal-tar coating has had “mixed success” in the past protecting pipelines, according to Kuprewicz.

“Just because a pipeline hasn’t leaked or ruptured in the past doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. The past does not predict the future,” Kuprewicz, president of research group Accufacts Inc.,  told DeSmog Canada.

Line 5 has ruptured on land, notably in 1999 at Crystal Falls, Mich., spilling 850,000 litres of oil and natural gas liquids.

Michigan Needs To Protect the Great Lakes Commons

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the Michigan-based Great Lakes advocacy group FLOW (For Love of Water), argues Enbridge should be required to secure permission from the state of Michigan under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act before the pipeline company can transport bitumen through the Straits of Mackinac.

“As a trustee of the Great Lakes, the state of Michigan is obligated to assess possible impairments to the public’s use of the Great Lakes and protect the lakes for the enjoyment of present and future generations,” Kirkwood says.

Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act requires companies to obtain state permits to build or modify structures in the Great Lakes. Line 5 was built in 1953. The Act came into effect in 1955.

The Pipeline in the Straits: Learning About Line 5 with Enbridge in St. Ignace

By FLOW intern Jonathan Aylward. Jonathan has been with FLOW since January 2014 and also works on food-related projects throughout the Grand Traverse region.

There is an oil pipeline running through the Great Lakes underneath the Mackinac Bridge. The pipeline, called Line 5, is owned and operated by Enbridge, a Canadian energy corporation. Enbridge has pumped crude oil through the less than one-inch-thick pipeline for sixty-one years along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Built under Dwight Eisenhower’s administration at a time before modern pipeline regulations, Enbridge increased the output of Line 5 by 50,000 gallons per day in 2013. While Line 5’s capacity has increased, neither regulatory scrutiny nor corporate transparency have followed suit. The Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s and 20% of the planet’s surface freshwater, are at a greater risk than ever.

Line 5 is part of a vast network of Enbridge pipelines that transports crude oil and natural gas liquids originating in Western Canada (mainly the Athabasca tar sands) and North Dakota around the country. Line 5 is the section that passes from Superior, Wisconsin through the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan into Sarnia, Ontario.

Enbridge put on a public presentation in St. Ignace, MI, on February 5, 2014 in response to mounting public concern spurred in part by an alarming report released in 2012 and an unsettling video released last year, both by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Some of the most illuminating segments can be heard and read below.

First, a quick reminder of why Michiganders should be especially wary of Enbridge’s Line 5 and its 1,900 miles of pipeline surrounding the Great Lakes.

Enbridge’s Dilbit Disaster in Kalamazoo, MI

Bitumen is the type of oil that is extracted from the Athabasca tar sands, a region of Alberta the size of New York state. It’s not normal liquid oil; bitumen is more solid than it is liquid, and it has to be strip mined or boiled to be released from the ground. It is the heaviest form of petroleum in the world, which makes it especially hazardous to transport because in the event of a spill it can sink. From extraction to refinement, it has the largest carbon footprint of any type of petroleum.

Since 1999, Enbridge has been responsible for 983 spills, the largest of which happened in Marshall, MI (near Kalamazoo, MI) in 2010. That spill, on Line 6b, was the largest on-land oil spill in US history.  About one million gallons of diluted bitumen (dilbit) leaked into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The pipeline was forty years old, twenty years younger than Line 5. Enbridge has responded with negligence ever since the initial rupture:

  • The Line 6b leaked for 17 hours, and during the spill operators actually increased the pressure to release what was thought to be a blockage.
  • Enbridge monitors weren’t the ones to discover the spill; it was a local utility man that reported it to local authorities.
  • 180,000 gallons of bitumen still sits on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River three and a half years later.

The Kalamazoo spill has forced Michiganders to wake up to the interrelated threats to public health, the economy, and our environment that Line 5 poses. Pressing questions about the age and condition of the pipeline and the type of crude being pumped quickly surface.

  • After Kalamazoo, why should the public continue to entrust Enbridge as stewards of the Great Lakes?
  • Why is Enbridge using a sixty year old pipeline if their forty year old pipeline ruptured in Kalamazoo?
  • Which type(s) of tar sands oil product are shipped through Line 5?
  • Why is there a pipeline going through the Great Lakes at all?
  • Under what conditions was the pipeline approved and why is it still there?

Enbridge Comes to St. Ignace

Enbridge sent a public relations advisor and two of their engineers along with their cleanup contractor to St. Ignace to present “their side of the story” at the Mackinac County Planning Commision meeting. The room was packed with around 175 attendees. No representatives from NWF or other concerned organizations were present on the Q&A panel.

The environment was carefully controlled. Two Enbridge employees in the front row acted as a whispering counsel to the panel throughout the event. Instead of an open floor question and answer format, Enbridge opted to have the public write their questions down. Then, through an unexplained process, Enbridge proceeded to answer certain question cards. The mood shifted from respectful concern to outright frustration over the course of the hour and half long event. Many questions were left unanswered, and even more questions arose.

The Potential Disaster

1. Enbridge says 5,500 barrels (231,000 gallons) of light crude oil could leak into the Great Lakes.


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In the audio build-up to the video clip, the public relations advisor initially dismisses a question about the company’s assessment on a worst-case discharge. A minute passes (which has been edited out), and the citizen that wrote the question stands up and demands that they revisit his question. In the video, after more audience questioning, the Enbridge Engineer gives the number off the top of his head.

2. “Extremely conservative” estimate says 25 square miles could be covered.

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3. In the winter, “Mother Nature will dictate.”

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Winter ice is not the only force of nature present at Line 5’s Straits crossing that would enhance the complexity and difficulty of a clean-up. Here is an excerpt from the NWF report “Sunken Hazard” about the powerful currents in the Straits:

“The Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan is a unique area of the Great Lakes, a four-mile-wide channel that funnels colossal amounts of water between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Powerful storm-driven currents that cause water to oscillate back and forth between the two lakes can move water through the Straits at a rate of three feet or more per second. At times, the volume of water flowing beneath the Mackinac Bridge is 50 times greater than the average flow of the St. Clair River, one of the largest rivers in the Great Lakes basin. Those currents also make the Straits one of the worst places in the Great Lakes for an oil spill. There are few other places in the lakes where an oil spill could spread so quickly.”

What’s Inside the Pipeline?

4. Question: Are there any plans to pipe tar sands through this pipeline?
Answer: “There are no plans to pump what’s known as heavy crude, and sometimes called tar sands, through that pipeline.”

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This was the first question selected by Enbridge in the Q&A segment. Enbridge openly reports on their website that they are piping several types of tar sands oil through Line 5, mainly the product called synthetic crude, and not the heavier dilbit. Bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands becomes transportable in two ways: it’s either diluted with other chemicals to create dilbit, or it is partially refined at an upgrader facility in Alberta and mixed with chemicals to create a lighter product called synthetic crude. This document on Enbridge’s website reports “Light Synthetic” as one of four groups of products piped on Line 5, and this other Enbridge document lists the specific products that are commonly shipped through Line 5. All of the Light Synthetic products are derived from tar sands bitumen, and some of the “Light & High Sour” products are as well.

5. Question: What procedure does Enbridge have to follow if they change their mind and want to start shipping tar sands?
Answer: “It’s complicated, let me come back to that.” She didn’t.

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Again, Enbridge is already shipping a variety of tar sands crude products through Line 5. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal pipeline regulatory agency, treats all crude oil the same despite the fact that spill consequences vary by type and product. Enbridge can pump anything that classifies as crude oil or natural gas liquids through their pipelines, from conventional light crude oil to dilbit. On page three of this document from Enbridge’s website, it says that even if a product is not marked as permissible or existing for a specific pipeline (e.g. dilbit in Line 5), transporting it would simply “require prior authorization from Enbridge”. It appears that pipeline companies do not even have to document changes in batches or the chemical composition of its current products.

6. Line 5 currently pipes low density crude oil and natural gas liquids in 10,000 barrel batches.

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540,000 barrels pass through Line 5 per day.

7. Most of the product comes from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.

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Over half of the products listed on Enbridge’s website that pass through Line 5 can be traced to the Athabasca tar sands’ region. Here is the link again.

Kalamazoo River Spill

8. All oil floats, but some oil floats better than other oil.

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The 180,000 gallons of bitumen on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River demonstrate otherwise.

9. All questions that mention the Kalamazoo River spill were rejected.

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Enbridge says Lines 5 and 6b are ”two different lines that do different things”, so all questions that mention the spill are rejected.

The Condition of Line 5

10. Enbridge inspects for dents, cracks, and wall thickness. Line 5 under the Straits has no dents and good wall thickness.

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11. In 2012, Enbridge documented hundreds of “abnormalities or cracked features” on Line 5.
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12. “They don’t build it like this anymore.”

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13. “The seamless pipeline under the straits is in fact seamless.”

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At this point in the event, the word seamless had been used a lot.

14. The pipeline is welded every 40 feet. The seamlessness of the pipeline is referring to the side-seam.

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For an hour and a half, the audience pondered how it was possible to make, transport, and install a 5-mile long seamless pipeline. The question was finally answered near the end of the meeting. An Enbridge engineer clarified that the each pipeline piece is welded to the next section every 40 feet, and that the “seamless pipeline” is referring to the lack of a side-seam.

15. “There were no regulations that had to be met when that line was built,” but Enbridge looked it over in 2004 and concluded that Line 5 to par.

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16. People got angry that Enbridge didn’t answer all their questions at a public meeting about Line 5.

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For audio and video transcripts, click here.