The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and divide Michigan's lower peninsula from its upper peninsula. But the gorgeous blue expanse of this part of the Great Lakes region is threatened by a danger lurking just beneath its surface: two degrading oil pipelines.
Motherboard correspondent Spencer Chumbley went to Michigan to investigate the situation, and the research is alarming. If just one of the pipelines ruptured, it would result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of oil—and that's if Enbridge, the company that owns them, is able to fix the pipeline immediately. UMich research scientist Dave Schwab says, "I can't imagine another place in the Great Lakes where it'd be more devastating to have an oil spill."
Enbridge, the company that runs the pipelines, insists they are safe. But Enbridge does not have a particularly inspiring record, with more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, totalling 6.8 million gallons of spilled oil. In 2010, its pipeline 6B ruptured in the Kalamazoo River. The nation's focus was pulled by Deepwater Horizon at the time, but the Kalamazoo River spill became the nation's biggest inland oil spill.
The pipelines are now 62 years old
The Mackinac pipelines were built in 1953, and have not been replaced since then. Chumbley managed to track down and interview retired engineer Bruce Trudgen, who is probably one of the last living people to work on the pipelines. At the time of construction, the pipelines were supposed to last fifty years. But now, "Enbridge has decided it's good way past 50 years," Trudgen says. The pipelines are now 62 years old.
In 2013, environmental advocates with the National Wildlife Federation were fed up with not getting enough information about the pipelines' condition from Enbridge or the government. So they decided to dive down themselves to check it out. They found broken structural braces and sections of completely unsupported pipeline. Enbridge public affairs specialist Jason Manshum says these reports are misleading. "The notion that a company like Enbridge would not maintain a line is just atrocious," he said.
Chumbley asks Manshum if spills are just "the cost of doing business" for a company like Enbridge. "No releases are acceptable to Enbridge," Manshum says. "Are we there yet? No, clearly we're not."
Follow @spencerchumbley for updates on this story.