After Flint, more reason to shut down Mackinac’s Line 5 pipeline

It’s hard to fathom the people of Flint were poisoned by lead-tainted water for 17 months while government officials ignored evidence and downplayed the problem.

Unfortunately, the culture of denial and inaction brought to light by the Flint disaster has been around a long time in our state government. You only have to look at the Line 5 oil pipeline in the Mackinac Straits – which, until Flint, was the top water issue in Michigan – to see the same unwillingness to act in the face of urgent risk.

Rather than concede to calls for his resignation, Gov. Rick Snyder said he intends to stay in office to solve the problem in Flint, help the people who have suffered, make sure other Michigan cities aren’t also at risk and, as he vowed during a three-hour Congressional hearing, make “comprehensive change in state government.”

In addition to fixing Flint, one action he can take immediately to demonstrate that he is serious about changing the culture in Lansing is shutting down the flow of oil in Line 5 to ensure the Great Lakes are protected.

By now, the Flint story has been well told. The switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014 without implementing the proper corrosion controls leached lead from old pipes. Flint residents began complaining about the water, and as brown water flowed from the taps and tests confirmed unsafe lead levels over the following year, government officials quietly tried to figure out what to do.

Just how badly things were handled came to light, at least in part, after the governor’s office released nearly 300 internal emails earlier this year. A number of them pertain to an eight-page memo written in June 2015 calling for urgent action by Miguel Del Toral, a mid-level Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulator. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and EPA officials didn’t react with urgency so Del Toral gave a copy of the memo to Lee Anne Walters, a Flint mother whose children were suffering from lead poisoning. She gave the report to the media, and the Flint water crisis became front page news.

When questioned by reporters, an MDEQ spokesperson, who later resigned, said the water was safe, told people to “relax,” and called Del Toral a “rogue employee.” Despite mounting evidence and media pressure, it wasn’t until October that regulators finally issued a warning to Flint residents not to drink the water.

The Line 5 debate in Michigan has dragged out on a similar timeline. It was 2012 when the first report outlined the risk of the 63-year-old oil pipeline and the shocking lack of oversight. University of Michigan scientists have since developed a computer simulation that shows a pipeline leak would contaminate more than 722 miles of coastline from Petoskey to Alpena, and shut down drinking water on Mackinac Island.

Gov. Snyder formed a task force and an advisory board to study the issue. But just as the water kept flowing in Flint while regulators considered alternatives, each day that goes by the pipeline continues to carry 23 million gallons through five miles of open water in the Great Lakes.

Independent scientists have raised serious concerns about zebra mussels corroding the pipeline. Divers have documented broken pipeline supports. And everyone, including the Coast Guard, has pointed out that it’s impossible to clean up a spill in the winter when the Straits are typically covered with four feet of ice.

Public outcry is growing, too. More than two dozen local governments – from Traverse City to Detroit to Alpena Township – and four Native American tribes passed formal resolutions, more than 100 businesses have signed on, citizens have filed petitions, and state legislation has been introduced, all calling on the governor to exercise his authority to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic spill.

Of course, the difference between Line 5 and Flint is that the tragic event hasn’t happened yet. But that’s just it. To rebuild public confidence, state officials need to take proactive action to prevent harm before it happens.

The bottom line is that at some point in the lifespan of a pipeline a leak will happen. There are dozens of documented leaks throughout the same Midwest pipeline network that prove it, including the 2010 disaster that spilled nearly a million gallons into the Kalamazoo River.

If there is one thing that unites Michiganders it’s a love for the Great Lakes. We understand that our recreational tourism economy is based on clean water. And what’s particularly important in the Line 5 debate is Michigan’s economy can thrive without Line 5. The majority of its oil passes right through Michigan for processing in Canada before being shipped to markets in the northeast U.S. and overseas – and Michigan can get the oil it needs from other, less risky pipelines.

In addition to aiding the people of Flint and solving one of the most tragic drinking water cases in modern American history, Gov. Snyder should look across Michigan and take action to prevent another disaster and restore public trust in state government. Shutting down Line 5 and protecting the Great Lakes would be a good start

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Joe DeFors
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 9:58am
Proactive versus reactive. Why is it so difficult for our legislators and regulators to get in front of a threat rather than lead from behind? In the case of Line 5 it would appear that the interests of a single, for-profit company, trump the interests and well being of thousands. Yes, with viable alternative routings for the oil already in place, the math really is that simple. Of course, take a few months, even a year to establish the facts. But we're well past that now, it's time to act! Proactive vs reactive, safety vs risk, thousands vs one; why is doing the right thing so incredibly difficult?
Paul Jordan
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 12:15pm
I think that proactive action by state government is because the fundamental theory of government of our dominant Republicans are governmental minimalism. In other words, government is fundamentally bad and should do only that which is absolutely necessary. We know what is 'necessary' when something happens that they don't want to happen. This means that their minimalist government will tend to be reactive because only unfortunate developments demonstrate that governmental action is necessary. The exceptions to this reactivity are based upon their basic theory of society, which is that society depends upon the striving for and accumulation of wealth. Private business is fundamental to this, and government exists to establish conditions under which businesses can thrive and wealth can accumulate. This means that government must maintain justice and criminal justice systems that protect property. Therefore, proactive action is justified if it will promote or protect property, and the acquisition of property. Our current state government is therefore incapable of taking proactive action to protect the public health, public welfare, or environment without being absolutely forced to by political pressure.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 10:16am
Why you ask? Because big business owns our legislature and our governor, that's why. They own our regulators as well (one needs only to read from the Flint papers about 'business friendly' regulators). Until we vote out this incompetent and bought out by business governor and legislature nothing will change.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 12:05pm
So the existence of any risk is now the determining factor of whether we do or allow anything? The possibility of harm should exclude any activity given the inherent existence of risk? Can we all agree that the concept of risks and harm is relative? This should include the existence of harms that we may not even know exist? (GMOs for example.) Or is this only selective to risks and harms surrounding activities that the writer and previous commenters approve of?
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 12:20pm
No Matt, not any risk or any harm - risk is an inherent part of living and life. But in this case we are talking about a risk to the drinking water supply for tens of thousands; a risk to the primary economic driver for our entire tourism industry; and a fundamental risk to the ecology of the Great Lakes. All for what? So one company is not inconvienced by having to move their product down a different pipeline? No, this is an unacceptable risk by any reasonable measure.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 2:07pm
Joe, when you get on an airplane the risked downside is pretty bad, for you, I'd suspect the downside is worse than a leak in a pipeline after all you'd likely live to see a substantial clean up in the event of a leak, (unless you died in the meantime on a plane!) and , yet I imagine you still would get on an airliner even through risks are likely equivalent. This is selective risk and harm application - and particularly since neither of us nor the author or other commenters or acknowledge or know a thing about what safety/ backup systems exist - as if it would matter because there are still risks and that is all that seems to matter. Further, let's face it, since you mentioned it, the No pipeline/anti-fossil fuel crowd will never see any pipeline that is acceptably "risk free" so it backfires making companies unwilling to replace old pipelines with newer technology since there still are risks and they likely won't get any improvements approved.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 3:14pm
This is outstanding. It gives me hope for lucid, rational analysis of public policy in Michigan. All of life is a matter of balancing costs and benefits, and that involves assessing the probabilities of each.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:01pm
Matt, This is not "any risk" we are talking about. We're talking about our state, our country, and many would argue a significant part of the world's most precious resource - fresh water. Further, this water is held in public trust by the public for the public. No individual corporation should have the right to threaten such a unique and critical resource critical to the economic and physical well-being of a significant portion of the population of the Great Lakes Basin. To do so is akin to allowing the same people to put a 63 year-old pipeline through your living room. The living room is yours. No one has the right to expose it to significant risk against your will. At this point, it's clear that the will of the people of MI and the surrounding states and provinces are opposed to the threat of the Line 5 pipeline. It follows then, that this being a public resource, then no one entity should have the right to threaten it. Maybe that's too esoteric for you to understand. How about this? How is that brake line doing in your 63 year-old MI car? Oh, you don't have one? Probably because it fell apart from rust and other degradation. How much longer should we sit on that pipeline?
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:50pm
Brian, to your example, in my 63 year old car I might consider changing the 63? year old brake line, or tires or what ever, if it showed wear, and I wouldn't hesitate from driving down the road afterwards. Would letting Embridge make safety improvements to their pipeline be acceptable to you? I don't get the feeling that is what this is about.
Peter Eckstein
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 12:14pm
Excellent job of advocacy journalism. Let's hope that this won't become just another story of apologies after the fact of something that should have been prevented.
Richard Barron
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 2:08pm
This is a vital and insightful article. I concur in Mr. Voss's theisis that our State government has effectively abandoned traditional bi-partisan efforts to prioritize, address and fund major state problems. Further, Lansing has come to value the welfare of its corporate electoral funders over the welfare of our common environment and our common welfare. To paraphrase a former Republican President, we have become in Lansing, and, indeed, in Washington, a government of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich. If the people of Michigan are truly indifferent to significant and permanent risks to our water and our Great Lakes, then we deserve whatever environmental disasters lie in store for us. Independent and well funded journals, such as the Bridge, are key to alerting the public about such threats to their water and, indeed, their democracy.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 3:04pm
I admit I've not agreed with Sen Rick Jones republican from Grand Ledge But I fell out at llast night news to hear him say he's introducing a bill this week to shut this pipeline down, calling it a disaster waiting to happen. Just checked his web page and all the details are there.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:18pm
It’s true that not all pipelines are created equally. The Line 5 pipeline was built to incredibly high standards, which meet or exceed today’s standards for new pipeline construction. And today, Enbridge goes to great lengths to operate Line 5 safely. Line 5 carries only light and synthetic crudes or natural gas liquids (used to make propane) and moves the product through the Straits of Mackinac at a reduced pressure, which minimizes stress on the line. My Straits-based team works hard every day to make sure that Line 5 continues to safely deliver the energy needed to keep Michigan’s economy growing, neighbors employed, and gasoline tanks full. Further, we use high tech tools to keep a careful eye on the condition of the line. We inspect the Line 5 Straits Crossing more often than federal regulations require. We use tools that work like MRI machines to inspect the inside of the pipe; in addition we send divers or remote operated vehicles (ROV’s) down to inspect the outside of the twin 20-inch diameter pipelines. If we find something that gives us cause for concern, we put eyes on it so we can determine if further action is needed. Onshore, we dig down to the pipeline so we can actually see it. Underwater, a trained diver and ROV will visually inspect the line. We have a rigorous process and criteria for determining whether a feature requires repair, replacement or just continued monitoring. Currently, there are no features identified by our inspection tools in either of the 20-inch diameter, twin pipes that cross the Straits. Line 5 splits into two smaller pipelines at the Straits as an additional safety measure to prevent back pressure should an incident occur. This also allows us to operate the Straits Crossing at much lower pressures than the pressure for which the line is designed. That said, we are watching nine onshore features alone the Line 5 pipeline. We’re watching them closely. And we will act if we have reason to believe they could present a threat to the pipeline and the surrounding environment. As for the University of Michigan study funded by the National Wildlife Foundation, it is flawed. The study is based on an exaggerated volume of oil spilled, five times more than the actual worst case scenario. The study also assumes no one would respond to contain and collect oil. In reality, Enbridge has equipment and people staged all along the waterfront to respond immediately if a release should occur. Local, state and federal response agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard would also respond quickly to any release in the Straits. While we don’t anticipate a spill based on the condition of the pipe, we are prepared to address any emergency, no matter how unlikely. We encourage all Michigan residents to be informed on Line 5 and how the pipeline delivers critical energy that many of you rely on each day. We are committed to being part of the conversation on Line 5 and making sure that your questions and concerns are addressed. You can reach us by calling our Line 5 hotline, 1-855-869-8209, or by email at You can also get the facts on Line 5 at Blake Olson Operations Manager, Line 5 Northern Michigan and the Straits Crossing
Ed Haynor
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 5:12pm
If Enbridge was truly responsible and proactive, as the author Mr. Voss is recommending, readers wouldn't have to be exposed to this company ad in the form of diatribe from an Enbridge spokesperson. We certainly can't count on Enbridge, the state, and Gov. Snyder to do their jobs, with Flint being the perfect example of state government incompetence at all levels. Maybe a citizen petition mandating the shutting down of Line 5 under the Mackinac Bridge is in order. Of course reading this, our state legislature, encouraged by a frightened Enbridge, will craft a bill outlawing any citizen initiative shutting down the pipeline, which will be signed by the governor, and the legislature will include in this bill a financial appropriation barring citizens from ever taking action on their own. This is the current MO of Michigan's republican party which completely controls state government from the legislature through the courts. Who said absolute power doesn't corrupt absolutely?
Bill Barker
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:34pm
The building standards of the Enbridge 5 pipelines crossing the Straits may meet or exceed today's standards, but the lines are 63 years old and Enbridge should replace them with new lines built to the highest standards possible as soon as they can be built, or move the oil some other way. Always risk, but make it the minimum possible risk. I don't think underwater pipelines should be prohibited. The same oil crosses the St. Clair River above Detroit's water supply and that does not seem to bother anyone in spite that that line or lines must be the same age.
Jerry D
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 9:21pm
I noticed the Embridge representative neglected to address the Coast Guard's issue with a winter spill with ice cover. And as to quick response, Duh, did we already forget what happened around Marshall. Also, I am going to presume the person who said we haven't had problems with the Sarnia pipeline under the St. Clair river has not been a problem has a short memory or is new to the area. There has been a litany of problems requiring closing of water intakes downriver. In fact it was these problems led to the attempt to install a water monitoring system by a host of communities along the River and lake St. Clair..
Susan Lenfestey
Wed, 04/13/2016 - 12:46pm
A friend who lives on Mackinac Island was allowed to be a "ride along" in the mock recovery drill Enbridge staged in the Straits last September. Without going into details, this person told me that the river boom they used in the exercise was totally inadequate in the Straits, and the waves washed right over it, as would any floating oil. Also, the exercise was nearly cancelled due to waves and wind. I was on shore that day and don't recall the wind being much of an issue, and I read later that the waves were between 2 and 3 feet. If conditions like that make a recovery effort risky, seems to me that Enbridge better study up on alternative recovery skills because the Great Lakes aren't exactly a mill pond. As for a recovery effort in the winter ice, everyone from the Coast Guard to the DEQ admits that they don't have one. And only lately has Enbridge floated some language implying that they do. Enbridge is playing catch-up with their PR efforts, and the assurances of safety -- including the mockery of a drill -- should be seen as nothing more than part of that effort.
Wed, 04/13/2016 - 9:05am
Mr. Blake. I just can't let your comments about Enbridge safety standards go without a response. A simple Google search reveals that Enbridge had 804 spills between 1999 and 2010 totaling approximately 161,475 barrels. In July 2010, (after the former study) came the Kalamazoo river spill. Wikipedia tells the whole story at, but suffice it to say that this was the largest inland spill in U.S. history. Worse, your line monitoring team ignored sensor data saying the pipeline pressure had dropped and it took a random outsider hiking in the area to find and report the spill - some 18 HOURS LATER. So when you say "We’re watching them closely. And we will act if we have reason to believe they could present a threat to the pipeline and the surrounding environment." I can hardly contain myself. Initial estimates from the Kalamazoo spill were that it would take a few months to clean up and cost about $5M to do so. A year later the river was still closed and two years later the bill was over $765 million. In all it was estimated that this spill alone was over 1,000,000 gallons. Many don't understand that, because of their length, a spill under the straits would still leak around 300,000 gallons even it the valves at each end were shut off immediately. And, as noted in previous comments, the Coast Guard has stated that if such a spill occurred in the winter under a frozen surface, there are currently no known means at all to clean up. Recall again, it took over two years to do the primary clean up of a well defined, inland body of water. The word catastrophe is not too strong to describe the consequences of a spill in the Great Lakes. I can't help but wonder how your editorial about Enbridge safety standards might have read had this discussion been in June 2010, just one month out from the Kalamazoo disaster?
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 5:41am
I admit I don't understand. What is in it for us in MI. to continue the pipeline operating in the Great Lakes. Help me out. R.L.
Fri, 04/15/2016 - 1:29pm
R.L., My concern is if people can shutdown any legal business simply because they want to by claiming their is a possibility that something might happen someday when it has not happened in the past [for over 60 years] and are unwilling to make an disciplined effort to investigate and address issues that might arise when do they stop. What business is safe from being closed simply because someone wants something and by making an emotional appeal can get it without consideration for anything or anyone else. We want good paying jobs here, but why create a business here if there is no due process, rule of law, veto power over operations given to the loudest and most emotional person the media will cover? Why should Michigan business be controlled by demagogues? I think that a business such as the pipeline should employ proven methods for ensuring the safe operations. But I don't believe it should be, or any business, shutdown simply because they it can't be made risk free. Who would be allowed to get out of bed if it were only allowed if there would be no risks, who would be allowed in a car if it required zero risk, what life saving surgery would be even attempted it was required to have zero risk? We had this happen locally, forcing a company into court because of a few people's emotional appeals that cause the City [in the courts opinion was illegally] rezone the property without due process. That company had to go to court to challenge the City in protecting their legal activities. Why should they have to have that added cost simply because someone wanted something else? In this case or any such case who will bear financial burden whichever way it plays out? What financial risk or other risks does Mr. Voss or his equivalent that makes such claims against an organization, activity, established product or service?
Fri, 04/22/2016 - 11:20am
I am quite sure the pipeline problem could be solved without removing the pipe. Anyone interested call me. 517-626-2256 Dale Westrick Inventive solutions
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 11:46am
'The House is slated to spend 80 days in session in 2016, and the Senate is slated to spend 83 days in session. That's a combined 163 days -- lower than the combined 205-day average lawmakers have posted over the past 19 years, according to legislative records available online.' But they did find the time to pass laws so people could incur more brain injuries (that you and I will pay for) on motorcycles, more people could be injured by fireworks and did everything they could to push their ideology on small cities and towns in Michigan (so much for 'big government').
John Saari
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 1:48pm
I am embarrassed by the actions of our government. No common sense. A one day effort by one contractor can fix a building owner!s water line in one day for about 20,000 dollars. If the mackinaw straights pipeline was double walled with leak detection and immediate shut off, what's the problem. ,
Fri, 07/08/2016 - 1:24pm
One possibility is that MI could legislate that any company, or person, which/who wishes to , or is currently, transporting a potentially "spillable" substance under or on the Great Lakes must provide a cash bond to cover ALL possible negative results of a spill of that substance. For any now existing pipeline and other potential polluting substance transporting device give such a company or person a short period to provide such a bond. Failure to do so could be punished by heavy fines, prison sentences, and a takeover for the dismantling of the violating structure or device. In addition to the potential stupendously enormous "goo damage" and attempted cleanup costs, there are the potentially similarly large losses in business to tourism, animal losses, loss of recreation uses by MI citizens and potential state visitors, fresh water use bu municipalities, and state reputation, a reputation for being a good place to visit. Several billions of dollars of losses could be involved here. Substantial mandatory prison sentences for ALL people involved in managing and/or maintaining -- failing to maintain -- the faulty polluting devices would also be appropriate. And, how about the EVEN OLDER pipeline which is under Lake St Clair (and any other such pipeline if there are any)? Both state and federal feet should be held to the fire for that potential environmental disaster waiting to happen. This is too dangerous a situation to wait.
Ned Curti
Sat, 07/09/2016 - 3:08pm
Words....from everywhere...have become hollow and meaningless. If you care about the health of people and other life, the waters of the Great Lakes and beyond, the environment and our world, and if you you are thinking of the welfare of your children, grandchildren, and others who will live on and depend upon this planet...then your position is "CLOSE LINE# 5 TODAY." If you want to maximize profits at Enbridge and other old model energy companies, happen to draw a paycheck there, are a governmental official who is supported financially by the dying energy industry on their way out, or are just a denier, then you probably say "THEY ARE LYING! LINE#% WILL NOT LEAK> IF IT DOES THEY WILL CLOSE IT IN 5 MINUTES or less, and all is well, you liberal, tree huggers." Pick a side and do something! I support life, health, and protection of our planet Earth. The financial impact of closing Line# 5 and any others posing such a risk in our world is miniscule. #SaveTheStaightsofMackinac Thank you.