A Great Lakes Oil Spill Waiting to Happen

Operated by Canadian oil giant Enbridge, Line 5 is an underwater pipeline running beneath the Mackinac Straits, which connect Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. A rupture in the aging pipes could mean catastrophe.

2 minute read

July 5, 2016, 7:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline

Maureen / Flickr

The oil firm Enbridge already has a history of oil spills in the Great Lakes region. Jimmy Tobias writes, "The worst occurred along Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, when the company's Line 6b pipeline burst one summer day and sent 843,000 gallons of dirty diluted bitumen gurgling downstream for 39 miles. The clean-up cost was estimated at $1.2 billion. Later that year, an Enbridge pipeline leaked 250,000-gallons of crude in a suburb of Chicago."

Enbridge's Line 5, a pair of underwater pipelines constructed in 1953, lies under the Mackinac Straits, in the center of one of the most important fresh water systems in the country. This inconvenient truth has diverse regional interests questioning whether the pipeline is worth the potential trouble. 

The research perspective isn't promising. "The Mackinac Straits are the 'worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes,' according to Dave Schwab, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Water Center." According to a report authored by Schwab, "approximately 700 miles of shoreline in Lake Michigan and Huron are vulnerable to being sullied by a 25,000-barrel spill, though no single incident would impact such a vast area." 

Unlike most oil pipelines, which operate under federal regulation, Line 5 depends on an easement sanctioned by the state of Michigan. Regional nonprofits, business interests, and municipalities are united in a push for revocation, while Enbridge reps insist on the line's continued safety. 

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