Opinion | Celebrate Earth Day by protecting Michigan environment from Line 5

Regina Gasco-Bentley is tribal chairperson for Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Bryan Newland is president/chairperson of Bay Mills Indian Community and Aaron Payment is tribal chairperson of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we look around and see much progress, much work to do – and much danger, specifically from the oil pipeline known as Line 5.

The progress is clear: Our Great Lakes, vital to our tribes as the source of life, food – many tribal members rely on fishing for income, as they have for generations – and increasingly, tourism, are far cleaner than they were in 1970. While rivers are not catching fire, the lakes still harbor hazardous chemicals, invasive species plague the lakes, sewage plants overflow after heavy rains and record high water levels are evidence of climate change.

But a clear and present danger is right in front of us: Enbridge’s Line 5.

This 67-year-old pipeline loaded with petroleum liquids, well past its design life, crosses 645 miles of Michigan. While much attention has rightly been focused on the pipeline’s passage along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the company – Enbridge – and this pipeline specifically have a history of catastrophic breaks that lead to pollution of inland rivers and properties it passes through.

The people of Michigan should never forget the damage caused to the Kalamazoo River, when more than 1 million gallons of oil spilled from a six-foot break in a different Enbridge pipeline.

Modelling prepared by the University of Michigan shows a failure of Line 5 under the Straits would lead to oil spreading from Beaver Island, off Charlevoix, to Alpena, devastating lake-related tourism and destroying fisheries that our tribes have relied on for time immemorial.

A break of Line 5 inland, where it runs along the U.S. 2 corridor of the Upper Peninsula (and through tribal treaty lands), could endanger dozens of rivers and creeks, including direct tributaries to Lake Michigan. In fact, a report prepared at the state’s request by Michigan Technological University suggested this stretch is even more susceptible to spills than that under the Straits.

Enbridge has responded by proposing it would encase in a tunnel the section of the pipeline – really two lines running in parallel – under the Straits. That would not be completed for a decade, if ever, leaving the pipeline exposed to anchor strikes, wave stresses, and continued degradation.

Equally bad, the company plans to do nothing to address the many inland water crossings.

Another Earth Day concern is the role of Line 5 in climate change. Some of the petroleum it carries comes from the oil sands of Alberta, where massive amounts of energy are used to heat sand until the liquids are released, along with methane, CO2 and other climate change-accelerating gases. At a time when our globe needs to reduce its reliance on carbon-based fuels, Line 5 is contributing to the changing weather patterns that are major contributor to record high water levels causing massive erosion of lakeshore property and sand dunes.

This pipeline brings very little value to Michigan. The vast majority of its product flows to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario – not surprising, since Enbridge is a Canadian company. A small amount is offloaded and turned into propane for use in Michigan, a product for which there are a number of substitutions possible with much lower risk for very little additional cost.

A massive oil spill risk to Michigan, to our tourism economy, to our fishing industry and to our tribes and peoples, who have high respect for the lakes and the environment. For a minimal value to Michigan.

This is why we say Line 5 is the biggest danger facing Michigan’s environment on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We know Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel are looking carefully at how to address the Line 5 danger. We encourage them to join our tribes in pushing for a shutdown of the pipeline in an orderly fashion.

And we encourage anybody concerned about our Great Lakes, our environment, climate change and the future of our state’s economy to contact them and urge them to use the power of their offices to protect Michigan from this potential environmental catastrophe.

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. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Margaret R BENNETT
Thu, 04/23/2020 - 9:00am

Thanks for the story about Line 5; and about the Enbridge company.
As a lifelong Michigander (born and raised in Michigan, as were my sons, and most of my grandchildren); I've been long seriously concerned about the 'Line 5' owned by the Enbridge company.
I DO NOT know why we are still considering doing business with them.

I've heard from many concerned Michiganders, including Jack Lessenberry about this BAD idea.
It's been suggested that a break in the Line 5 could seriously damage both Lakes Michigan,
and, Huron--perhaps permanently. [Cleanup would cost huge amounts of money.]
We cannot afford to take this chance.
Seriously damaging any of the Great Lakes will have incredible results. Not only would it damage our State's recreational, and business activities--it would cause problems for our country; and, perhaps the world.
NOTE: The Great Lakes contain something like 20% of the entire fresh, surface water on Planet Earth.
We cannot afford to harm this important resource.
Margaret R Bennett
Ann Arbor

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 12:41pm

what is the relationship to high water levels and the pipeline that is on the bottom of the lakes and can spring a leak anytime, or be hooked by an anchor. I am missing the long term relevance of your post.

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 11:42am

So many misstatements in this article, but I'll just throw out one in sake of time. The authors say Enbridge plans to do nothing with other inland waterbody crossings... There is an entire section in the agreement that Enbridge made with the state which is assessing several dozen inland waterbody crossings (many in the UP). They have even already received permits to do work at some of the locations. This information is easy to find as it is in the same agreement that calls for the building of the tunnel, so I'm sure the authors are aware of it.

Al Warner
Thu, 04/23/2020 - 1:06pm

Well done! This is another 100 yr fossil fuel investment that will become a stranded asset in the next 10 - 20 years. It's going to happen ... we can't put off reducing CO2 any longer.

Gerry Niedermaier
Sun, 04/26/2020 - 10:21am

It's h igh time time they were run out of Dodge!

Alex Sagady
Sun, 04/26/2020 - 2:31pm

>>>>>and this pipeline [Line 5] specifically have a history of catastrophic breaks that lead to pollution of inland rivers

That never happened, except in the imagination of the authors.

There were spills on Line 5, but none of them discharged to waters of the United States.

Mon, 04/27/2020 - 1:35pm

This Detroit Free Press article explains how Enbridge Pipeline 5 fuel and crude oil mostly goes to Canada not Michigan. Why risk our land and waters for that? Besides, Enbridge has a terrible history of spills from their lines. They have been dishonest in the past about the safety of their pipe lines.