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.

4 comments on “The Pipeline in the Straits: Learning About Line 5 with Enbridge in St. Ignace

  1. Julye Raycraft on

    The prsentation assumed we (straits area residents) are a bunch of [redacted] idiots. Not answering so many ?s. Who was that Mackinac county official that was quoted on WCMU radio station. He said all as okay. Never heard of this guy.

  2. Brad Geyer on

    Enbridge public relations people treated us like idiots also.

    “Most of the residents’ questions were answered with canned company talking points, not taken seriously, or in some cases completely ignored, as was the case when a representative of Enbridge was asked to explain the chemical make-up of the diluent used by the company to help transport thick tar sands. The company officials never gave a straight answer to this question.”

    Enbridge “Coffee and Conversation”

  3. robert h keller on

    The Ancient Mariner said it best ” Water , water every where nor any drop to drink” That’s the vision of Michigan and the Great Lake States, if Enbridge, the Canadian oil pipe line Co. is not forced to shut down line 5 under the Straits of Mackinaw. Enbridge claims to be prepared for any fracture of its pipe line. In the turbulent times we live in can they guarantee that no individual or organization bent on creating chaos can’t rupture the line with explosives. There goes our Pure Michigan assets. Michigan is a great state the most valuable resource in the world is water. If we don’t shut the pipe line down, the Flint water crises will look a tea party, compared to the destruction created by the oil spill. Don’t hang that Albatross on the people of Michigan

  4. Marla on

    This is really attention-grabbing, You are an excessively skilled blogger.
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