It is impossible to sum into a couple of words the grandeur of the five Great Lakes. These are by far the largest sources of fresh water in the world, specifically 21 percent of the world’s fresh water. It is home to more than 3,500 species of plants and animals, and 170 species of fish. Not to mention over 30 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water – that’s 10 percent of the U.S. population and 30 percent of the Canadian population.
We can also bring up the sheer beauty and magnificence of these lakes. However, the greatest importance just might be how irreplaceable they are within the world’s ecosystem. Numbers and facts speak for themselves; all five of these life-givers play an instrumental role in the lives of millions.
Now imagine this: every single day, around the clock, under the crystal surfaces of these same lakes, flows an incomprehensible amount of oil. That’s 23 million gallons of oil to be exact. All that holds back such a massive onslaught of oil is a system known as Line 5, which is comprised of two 20-inch diameter pipes built in 1953.
The entity which constructed these pipelines is a formidable corporation by the name of Enbridge. Enbridge currently moves two-thirds of Canada’s crude oil exports into the U.S. and about 20 percent of all the natural gas used in the U.S. This is where we begin to see a clash between protecting Mother Earth’s natural resources and our first-world industrial endeavors.
The pipe was originally intended to have a lifespan of only 50 years, and that 50-year marker expired 17 years ago. Line 5 is accredited to 33 separate oil spills since 1968, one of which caused immense environmental damage.
In 1999, four years before it hit its expiration date, Line 5 had issues. That year, Crystal Falls, Mich., experienced a 220,000-gallon spill of a concoction between oil and natural gas. The spill resulted in a fire that lasted 36 hours and forced over 500 people to evacuate.
Yet, the most infamous spill by Enbridge was the Kalamazoo River spill: the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Although it was not the Line 5, rather the Line 6B, it serves as a testament to Enbridge’s quality of work. The spill occurred in July 2010 near Marshall, Mich., in Talmadge Creek, a tributary that feeds into the Kalamazoo River. Over a million gallons of tar-sands crude oil was spilled and spread over 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River. As result, over 3,000 animals needed to be rescued and relocated from the contaminated waters.
Talmadge Creek was refilled after having been almost completely excavated. Not to mention, the entire process of having to clean the waters resulted in the loss of native plant species. It took about five years for the river and tributary to be nurtured back to a state similar to its original.
An Aging Relic
This 67-year-old pipeline has not gone unscathed all these years, yet Enbridge claims that with proper maintenance the pipeline can last indefinitely. In 2018, an anchor strike from a ship damaged both pipes, one dent being almost two feet in length. Not to mention an even more recent anchor strike in June this year.
Corrosion has taken its toll on the pipe, and in one region the pipe lost 26 percent of its original wall thickness. Evidence shows the pipe cannot last forever.
In November 2017, Jim Mihell, chief engineer for Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems stated in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there was a “one in 60 chance of really having a failure in the Mackinac Straits between now and 2053.”
Dr. Ed Timm, a retired Dow Chemical engineer, has mentioned, “The expected failure probability of Line 5 under the Straits is 46.4 percent in 2017 and 72.5 percent in 2053 based on average failure rates for all pipelines.”
Prior to these statements, the State of Michigan released a study of alternatives for Line 5, which mentioned that the failure rate was 1.6 percent. The report itself was vague and inaccurate, since it failed to measure up to a multitude of environmental demands. This brings up the issue of possible alternatives and remedies to this impending danger to the Great Lakes.
Decommissioning Line 5
There exist a couple of alternative options for Line 5 (not to mention the option of eliminating it completely): Transporting the oil via trucks, trains, boats or replacing the pipes with a tunnel. The latter being the most popular choice by Enbridge.
All options come with a significant drawback, one of the most significant being huge economic cost for Americans, even though most of Enbridge and its assets belong to Canada. As of late, there has been much quarrel between the state and advocates for the removal of Line 5, and Enbridge.
Clear Water Action states that in 2018, HB 1197 was instituted. This was a Senate Bill that allowed for a utility tunnel for Line 5 to be constructed under the Mackinac strait. The bill also established the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to oversee tunnel construction. At this point, pushing for the tunnel option began, conveniently right before Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and General Attorney Dana Nessel were elected in January of 2019.
In June 2019 after Governor Whitmer had attempted negotiations for the decommission of Line 5 with Enbridge, the state was sued by the former. Following this suit was that of Attorney General Nessel aimed back at Enbridge. Each argued the validity of Enbridge’s right to have Line 5 in the Mackinac Straits.
On July 1, 2020, Line 5 continued operation after an investigation of the pipe’s integrity, following an anchor strike in June. With all this, Line 5 still continues to pose a threat to the Great Lakes.
The Battle Continues
Advocacy groups such as Oil & Water Don’t Mix and For Love of Water (or FLOW) continue to push for the complete elimination of Line 5, which seems like one of the only solutions to effectively protect the Great Lakes and the surrounding environment.
Ultimately, the decision lies within the community: how much are we willing to sacrifice for the wellbeing of what we hold dear?
Clear Water Action
For Love of Water
Kalamazoo River Watershed Council
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oil and Water Don’t Mix