Deep beneath the placid surfaces of the Great Lakes lies a grave ecological disaster waiting to happen. Canadian energy company Enbridge Inc. operates an aging oil and gas pipeline which runs for four and a half miles under the Straits of Mackinac, the series of waterways that connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The pipeline, known as Line 5, was first built in 1953 and is in shockingly poor repair, with many sections corroded and extremely vulnerable to leakage. The potential for a spill is high, and the results would be disastrous for the Great Lakes, which contain approximately one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply.
Faith in Enbridge is low, as the company has a poor track record with safety. Opponents are worried that Line 5 could meet the same fate as the company’s Line 6B, which notoriously leaked over 840,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The resulting disaster was one of the largest inland spills in our nation’s history, and critics fear that a spill on the Great Lakes would be far worse.
In response, a wide swath of activists, politicians, advocacy groups, and concerned citizens are fighting to decommission Line 5. One of the organizations leading the effort is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).
VICE Impact spoke with Mike Shriberg, Executive Director of NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center, a partner of the National Wildlife Fund that works to protect the Great Lakes, about the threat of Line 5 and what the average citizen can do to help.
VICE Impact: What is the Enbridge pipeline, and why is its positioning in the Straits of Mackinac such a huge threat to the Great Lakes?
Mike Shriberg: This pipeline has been around since 1953, and it uses the Great Lakes as a shortcut to get oil and natural gas liquids to mainly Canadian markets. This pipeline is the single biggest threat, in terms of oil transport, to the Great Lakes. Generally, you don't find oil pipelines that have these massive crossings under fresh water. But here you have a four and a half mile segment crossing the Great Lakes, which are the world's most important freshwater resource.
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The Straits of Mackinac are notoriously treacherous waters and because it's at the confluence of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, the water can actually flow in multiple directions. So you have this extraordinarily complex water system, with huge flows of water. If oil was spilled there, the chance of any significant recovery is almost zero.
So then what are potential solutions to the issue?
The ultimate solution is to decommission the pipeline. The Straits of Mackinac are simply not the place for an oil pipeline. The fortunate thing is that there are very limited services that are provided by this oil pipeline to the state and region. There's a small amount of oil that is actually used in Michigan and the rest is sent across to Canada. These services are very easily replaced.
The good news in all of that is because the state and the region is assuming all of the risk and has nearly none of the benefits, this is not a piece of critical infrastructure. It's very easy to decommission this pipeline without seeing an impact to people in the state or the region of the country.
How has Enbridge responded to the concerns surrounding the pipeline, and efforts to see it decommissioned?
Enbridge’s reaction has been to obfuscate the truth, and to hire a lot of lobbyists and PR folks. The company itself has not been truthful in talking about the condition of the pipeline. I sit on the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, which is appointed by the governor to help him decide what to do about this pipeline. We had one of the vice presidents of Enbridge come before us earlier this year and say, "The pipeline is in good as new condition. And the coating, which protects it from the corrosive power of water, is intact and in good shape." It turns out those statements were demonstratively false. And the company has since admitted that they were false.
There are actually 40 something areas where the coating on the pipeline is worn away down to bare metal. So the governor and the attorney general have told the company that they're losing trust.
Enbridge has shown over and over again that they are not trustworthy. It’s insane to trust them with drinking water for 40 million people, with 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water.
What are the next steps in the fight to get this decommissioned?
The state has commissioned a report of what risks the pipeline poses. But ultimately, it's the decision of the state's attorney general, Bill Schuette, who's also a declared gubernatorial candidate in 2018 for Michigan. He has it in his power to decommission the pipeline. There is no statutory deadline. There is no regulatory deadline. So the decision point really resides solely within the attorney general and the governor.
What would an oil spill in the Mackinac Straits look like? How would it impact both humans and ecosystems that exist around the Great Lakes and beyond?
If there is an oil spill, there are up to 700 miles of shoreline that could potentially be contaminated and over 17,000 square miles of open water.
If you look at the whole range of possibilities, then what you have on your hands is an ecological and economic disaster. It would be devastating to wildlife, devastating to the recreational tourist economy, and the communities that rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. We're talking billions of dollars of impacts if there's a spill of any kind.
What can the average person, who is concerned about this pipeline, do to help?
Locally, it's contacting the attorney general and the governor and saying, "Enough's enough. It's time for action on this." For folks around the country, this is a cautionary tale—there are similar issues in most regions across the country. People have the opportunity to be far more aware of what risks lie in their home region. It may not be as dramatic as something that's putting 40 million people's drinking water at risk, but even one person's drinking water at risk is more than enough. And so we've seen this awakening about the potential impacts of oil and fossil fuel transport, whether it's Keystone or any of these other issues. And so I'm hoping that this will spark awareness and interest with people across the country.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity