Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

President Obama and Gov. Snyder come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but share one thing in common: Dodging an oil pipeline bullet before an election.

Now they each face a final decision on what to do.

For Obama, it is the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He delayed any decision until after the 2012 election ...then again until after the 2014 election.

The Snyder administration also dodged a pre-election bullet after the 2010 rupture in Enbridge’s 6B pipeline dumped about a million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River near Marshall. Most people didn’t know there was an oil pipeline crossing the five-mile stretch between St. Ignace and Mackinac or between Port Huron and Sarnia.

Following continued public attention and protests, Snyder asked Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and Attorney General Bill Schuette in June 2014 to co-chair a multi-agency government task force to take a close look at pipelines transporting petroleum products around the state. This tactic basically removed the issue from Snyder’s bid for a second term.

The task force is expected to report its findings to the governor within the next few months after just wrapping up its hearings.

Risking a straits oil spill

Former DNR Commissioner Jim Hill, a Central Michigan University political science professor and lawyer, testified last month before the task force:

“We have a 60-plus-year-old set of petroleum pipelines lying under the Straits of Mackinac which, if damaged or otherwise compromised, could create an environmental nightmare for the region. The question then arises: Should there be cause for concern since there have been no known leaks under the Straits for all of this time? The pipeline’s spill in Kalamazoo in 2010 involving a pipeline of the same age and owned by the same company is the canary in the mine that says the answer to that question is, ‘Yes’.

“Recent pipeline petroleum spills and leaks just in the last month are further evidence that the possibility of a Straits spill must be taken seriously.

“If there were such a spill, could it be quickly and easily contained? Enbridge, the owner of the pipeline, says it could because of their sophisticated and state of the art detection and control systems, which I am sure they emphasized to you previously. However, Enbridge gave the same assurances to Congress not long before the Kalamazoo pipeline spill, which resulted in one of the worst inland oil spills in the nation’s history.”

Hill argues that maintaining the status quo to protect 20 percent of the world’s fresh water is not an option. He worries about human error, technology failure and extreme weather conditions, complicated by the fact that a spill in the Straits could be significant and not quickly controlled. He also points out that the U.S. Coast Guard says it does not have the capability to address a large-scale spill in the Straits area.

Testimony presented to the governor’s task force ranged from the commercial value of Michigan’s oil pipeline system and related jobs, to the potential environmental threat that petroleum pipelines — like those owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy — could pose to people, businesses, tourism, wildlife, land, water and air.

The stage is set for a potential environmental calamity unless something changes. The last two brutal Michigan winters with record-breaking cold temperatures and 7- to-8-foot thick ice add yet another challenge to oil spill remediation.

Right now, everyone appears to be standing on the sidelines anxiously awaiting the task force’s recommendations — and what Snyder will do with them — before moving forward.

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Patsy Cantrell
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 10:08am
We never listen to the actual "smartest people in the room" and we seldom take any action until after disaster strikes. It is just too hard for us; we don't want to take the time or pay the price.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 12:04pm
This is so sad...and deplorable. I don't know how, as Patsy says, officials are not willing to take the time or pay the price to do what is right for the earth...and for our future generations. Fact is, that's the truth. We know what should be done and we refuse. The consequences will be dire and I have not a clue how to stop this stupidity.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 12:07pm
Here in Washtenaw County we have Enbridge ('leased' from tiny Wolverine Pipeline - assume that Enbridge / Koch will dump the risk on that entity in the event of a spill or fine) using a pipeline built in 1953 and never used previously to transport tar sands oil to the Marathon refinery. That pipeline was never used until a year or two ago and now has oil at 1,000 pounds per sq. inch racing through it. What could possibly go wrong? NOW they want to put a gas (haven't found out if it's gasoline or natural gas - they're not easy to talk to) next to that pipeline (right right next to it). What could possibly go wrong? A 'twofer' one goes up and both go... And these will be close to homes in Washtenaw County. I struggled and got the 'emergency plan' from Wolverine (given to the county). What a joke. Instead of phone numbers in the event of emergencies it was 'call the appropriate authorities' or 'check the pipeline for the phone number to call'. Phil - how about a story on this? Before it becomes a disaster story.
Michael J
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 1:20pm
As a resident of Kalamazoo I can tell you we're only now starting to venture back into the river, but still only in boats. Half a decade of river life lost and swimming and fishing are still a long way off. I don't wish the Marshall spill on anyone, and certainly not on the entire Lake Michigan and Huron ecosystem.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 2:46pm
Time for Governor Dick to enforce Michigan's "PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE " on Enbridge's Line #5 flowing in 60 year aged pipelines, located underneath our pristine Straits of Mackinaac. He could also enforce Trust Doctrine in the St. Clair River ... To stop the excessive outflow conveyance/give away created of our water out flowing downstream. In both cases Snyder could protect our water and bottomlands for future generations (our children's children .....) enjoyment. (((( With his chimp Jon Allen, Director of the Great Lakes, instead I will guess Governor Dick will 'do nothing' on both counts, and give away 10,000 acres of our state land to Graymont for mining. )))
Richard scott
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 9:43pm
the straits pipelines were a major focus by candidates in last election. There is much evidence of the weakness, age of pipes and the increased pressure with pumping more viscous oil. There is little value or reward for Michigan and great risk for disaster there and in the wetlands traversed on the way back,to Canada. Listen to the,people from Kalamazoo where a leak happened despite all,the assurances it could not.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 7:56am
Thank you for this piece and to those who commented above. If the local media would cover this story more then we would have a better chance of proactive action. But if you turn on Ch 2,4,& 7 their local "news" will spend more time on an animal abuse story or trying to extract more emotions through interviews than they will on a huge issue such as this one which could impact millions and cost billions. Thanks again!
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 10:35am
The only way to provide public access to pristine waters is to dump millions of gallons of oil and then clean every drop up. Only then can we have truly pristine public waters.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 10:36am
The stretch of the Kalamazoo river subjected to spillage is more pristine now than ever.
Michelle Barlon...
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 11:52pm
AS a former resident of Battle Creek and yes I lived on the river... The river is not clean... They do not know how to clean it... Most residents will not go in the river .. IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE TO RISK THE GREAT LAKES time the possibility of a spill. It risks the drinking water of how many??? It risks the fishing and tourism industry...
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 11:56am
I sent an email regarding this, catastrophe waiting to happen, to My State Senator Tom Casperson (R) and Representative John Kivela (D), neither of whom responded to me. I doubt very much that any of them give a damn.
Sat, 03/14/2015 - 10:11am
We can complain here and nothing happens or we can start a political campaign and have people send letters to their representatives. They only respond to the masses to protect their reelection. Who would like to create the letter template? We can create a Web page with the letter pre written and a link to a list of Representatives or a link to their Web page to copy and past the letter. Many representatives only accept email letters from their site. Subject line: Protect our Water Dear: pick a name Body of letter....
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 3:18pm
As more and more countries turn to renewables for their energy, the USA continues to poison the air, land, and water with fossil fuels. This straits line will break. Our fresh water will be ruined. And Enbridge and the politicians will walk away without so much as a slap on the wrist.
Joseph Palm
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 6:05pm
Thanks Ken Winter and The Center for Michigan for keeping this issue in front of the public. Without continued pressure from the public it's doubtful Enbridge will be motivated to protect the Great Lakes and Great Lakes states from a disaster like Kalamazoo.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 11:30pm
Are we nuts, bless with all this fresh water to help Canada out, tell them to take it out of one of there cost lines no way no how, no one can control a leak, This make me ill to know that it was ever allowed let alone this old and this company could care less if they ruin all our fresh water,,,,,,,,if you think I am wrong, look how they took care of Marshall........no way no how close the thing off tell Canada to use there coast lines.........God help this state and all of our fresh water............
Sat, 03/14/2015 - 11:28am
Understanding is the Marshall / Kalamazoo River Oil Spill cleanup is far from complete !! ... I can not imagine the river being more pristine than ever before ... with EPA having Ryba Marine still overseeing the cleanup.
G. Duffy
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 2:35am
It is embarrassing to read all these comments about 'pristine waters' etc without any thought given to the alternatives. Going w/out CAN oil? Not to do our northern neighbors 'a favor' but to ensure for US a secure supply of energy. Alternative transportation? Trains derail occasionally, ships have accidents, LIFE IS RISKY! And life is most risky without affordable sources of energy. I trust the committee providing advice to Gov Snyder will take a truly comprehensive view and come up with proposals to make the transportation of energy safer and more efficient -- not catering to NIMBY outdoors types who explore a pristine environment with their big SUVs..
Ken Olson
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 3:55am
What is the best alternative to move the oil other than pipelines? If there isn't a replacement plan in place there should be.
Jay Johnson
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 10:41am
Enbridge Pipeline No. 5 runs from Superior, WI across the UP, under the Straits of Mackinac, downstate to Port Huron, and under the St.Clair River to a refinery in Sarnia, Ontario. Some of the crude is also used by the Marathon refinery in Detroit. If Pipeline No. 5 is shut down, both refineries in Detroit and Sarnia would still receive crude from the Enbridge Pipeline No. 6 that also runs from Superior, WI but takes a southern route to Chicago and then east across Michigan to Detroit, Port Huron and Sarnia. Yes, this is the same Enbridge pipeline that ruptured near Marshall, MI, fouled the Kalamazoo River, and required a massive cleanup. That cleanup was land-based. The consequences of a spill beneath the Straits of Mackinac, particularly in winter, would be catastrophic. Please see http://oilandwaterdontmix.com for more information.
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 6:22am
If you think sneaky Snyder will do anything, your sadly mistaken. This "task force" is a joke, and likely they will get their "facts" by counting jelly beans. I'd bet that the outcome will be "we see that it poses no threat", because that decision was bought and paid for, including the DEQ and DNR. If you've ever been to an Oil and Gas meeting in lansing, you already know this. If not, go to one and truly see how useless these reps are. One can't stop eating, and the others just sit there. Plus, the masses in MI love sneaky snyder. We tried recalling him but people apparently don't care. Wait till the $10.00 bottles of water start hitting stores. Mabee then they'll listen. Mabee.
Craig Oldham
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 7:14am
For the near future we will continue to use liquid fossil fuels (my dream obviously is that the amount of these will continue to decrease) soooooo just mandate the latest and greatest technolgy and lay new pipe next to the old. Remove the old pipe as cleanly as possible and come back in 50 years and review the process again. Enbridge and the companies that push their products through the lines CAN afford this. We (the state) should not incur cost because after all, each of us that continue to use the products will eventually pay anyway! Just tell the oil folks our way or the highway. Route your oil some other way!!!