Pipelines and the Great Lakes Don’t Mix

By Hans Voss

Did you know there are two 61-year-old pipelines submerged in the Mackinac Straits that pump 22 million gallons of oil a day through one of the most unique and beautiful parts of the Great Lakes?

How about the pipeline that ruptured and spilled a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River four years ago? Did you know that it leaked for 17 hours, the cleanup continues to this day, and that it was the largest inland oil spill in American history?

Both pipelines are owned by Enbridge, a Canadian company that operates the 1,900-mile Lakehead System moving oil throughout the Great Lakes region.

What if an accident like the one in Kalamazoo happened near the Mackinac Bridge?

Last month, the University of Michigan and the National Wildlife Federation released a study that found that a leak of 1 million gallons over a 12-hour period (which according to researchers is a conservative estimate based on the size of the pipeline and the time it would take to cut off the flow) could spread as far as 50 miles along the Lake Huron shoreline and pollute the waters surrounding Mackinac and Beaver islands. Researchers say the strong and unpredictable currents in the Straits make it one of the worst possible places for a spill.

Considering that Michigan’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry is anchored by the Great Lakes, the economic consequences would be catastrophic.

People are looking to state and federal officials for solutions as concerns grow about the Mackinac pipelines. A July 1, 2014, letter to Gov. Rick Snyder — penned by Traverse City attorney Jim Olson and signed by 19 conservation groups — outlined the legal authority Michigan retains over all activity on the Great Lakes bottomlands. It described violations of the original 1953 Great Lakes bottomlands easement; for example, Enbridge’s own documents show it has operated the pipelines above 600 pounds per square inch, the maximum pressure allowed. The letter called on Snyder to enforce the easement to protect against a pipeline spill.

A request to place an oil pipeline in the open waters of the Great Lakes would likely never be allowed today — not after the Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf spill, the Kalamazoo River spill, and Enbridge’s blemished safety record. In fact, the Kalamazoo spill was just one of 1,097 leaks in the entire Enbridge system between 1999 and 2003, spilling a total of 7.4 million gallons of oil into the environment.

Most agree the first step is to make sure the best possible safety measures, a rigorous monitoring regimen, and a strong emergency response plan are in place. Some argue state and federal officials should require Enbridge to replace the aging pipeline with the newest in pipeline technology.

But the bottom line is that even with the best safety measures, pipelines leak — and the only fail-safe way to protect our Great Lakes is to shut down the Mackinac pipelines entirely.

Michigan needs to muster the courage to do what makes sense for our economy and environment. It will take the better part of a generation to shift away from fossil fuels toward a clean energy economy. And if public outcry leads to a political consensus to remove the pipelines, it may be years before they are removed. But we can take steps today to develop a safer way of getting the fuel to market.

We have an example of this kind of shift right here in the Traverse City area. Since the 1930s, oil tanker ships came into the Grand Traverse Bay, docked at the Rennie Oil Dock just off M-22 in Elmwood Township, and pumped oil into storage tanks adjacent to what today is the TART Trail. Two years ago, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation closed the facility. Oil tanker ships stopped traveling in the bay and we’ve found other ways to transport fuels.

While we thankfully never had an oil spill in our bay, people around here are more comfortable knowing it’s not going to happen. If you want that same reassurance about the pipelines in the Great Lakes, now is the time to let state leaders know we want an aggressive plan to remove them.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Traverse City-based Michigan Land Use Institute that works to protect environment, strengthen the economy and build community. Find out more about the Mackinac pipelines and how to get involved at oilandwaterdontmix.org.