Opinion | Line 5’s environmental calamities started when it was built

Jeffrey Insko is an Associate Professor of English at Oakland University. He is currently writing a book titled Untimely Infrastructure: The 2010 Marshall, Michigan Oil Spill in the Human Epoch

The Shut Down Line 5 movement began in 1953, before the pipeline was even built. This fact may come as a surprise to present observers and participants in the effort to convince state elected officials to permanently decommission the aging twin pipelines hovering beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

After all, more recent organizers tend to locate the movement’s origins in 2012, when the National Wildlife Federation released its widely circulated Sunken Hazard report, with its shocking tale of imminent disaster and its vivid, frequently reprinted underwater images of the current condition of the pipeline. In just seven short years since that report, numerous other environmental groups, concerned citizens, tribes, and businesses across the state have joined the effort, forcing the question of Line 5’s future to the forefront of Michigan state politics.

Yet while Shut Down Line 5 has garnered significant statewide interest, it has primarily remained an Up North issue, of pressing concern mainly to those with an immediate economic or recreational stake in protecting the Great Lakes from the devastating effects of an oil spill. The vast majority of the businesses that comprise the Great Lakes Business Network, for example, understandably cluster along the northwest coast of Lake Michigan, from, say, St. Joseph to Mackinac Island. And one of the movement’s major hubs, the coalition called Oil & Water Don’t Mix, is, also understandably, headquartered in Traverse City. To date, the story of Line 5 has primarily been a story about the Great Lakes.

But if you follow the pipeline southward from the Upper Peninsula, roughly parallel to I-75, as it snakes its way toward its termination point in Sarnia, Ontario; or if you trace its origins back in time, to the post-war boom years of the mid-20th Century when it was first constructed, a different version of the Line 5 story emerges. Not a story of inevitable disaster yet to come, but a story of actually existing, ongoing environmental calamity, some of which might well have been prevented.

In March of 1953, the State of Michigan passed legislation to allow the granting of easements to Lakehead Pipe Line, the American subsidiary of the company that would eventually become Enbridge, Inc., to build a 635-mile oil pipeline from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. The Michigan Public Service Commission also approved the plan that spring and Line 5 was born. At the time, the project was touted as the world’s longest crude pipeline, promising cheap gasoline to Michigan drivers, in-state jobs, and tax revenue for public schools. One newspaper report even described it as a “priority project in the defense of the continent.” Fittingly, construction during the summer of 1953 became a state-wide spectacle, covered breathlessly in newspapers.

The Detroit Free Press, for instance, viewed it as part of an almost mythical historical transformation. “Paul Bunyan dropped his log chain and sulked in defeat when the pipeline builders moved into Michigan,” the paper wrote. In late August, crowds gathered on the shoreline of St. Ignace to witness the spectacle of enormous barges pulling the first long stretches of pipe across the Straits, an unprecedented engineering feat that took only a matter of days.

Yet not everyone viewed the coming of the pipeline so joyfully. Landowners resisted the exercise of eminent domain laws compelling them to enter into easement agreements with Lakehead, for example. The strongest resistance came, surprisingly, from the City of Detroit. As pipeline construction began upstate, Laurence Lenhardt, the General Manager of the Detroit Water Board requested that the state Attorney General Frank Millard revise state lease agreements to address potential pollution. Lenhardt worried about contamination to the St. Clair River — a major source of drinking water for millions of southeast Michigan residents — from refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, where pollution control measures were (and to this day remain) far more lax than in the United States. Despite Lakehead’s dismissal of Detroit’s concerns, which they called “fantastic,” Millard did briefly suspend the granting of new easements while he considered the matter. But eventually, he determined that the state Conservation Commission could not stipulate that the transportation of oil be shut down if pollution levels increased in the St. Clair River. As a common carrier of crude oil products, Millard reasoned, Lakehead had no control over the activities of Sarnia refineries. As a result, Line 5 was built. Before Christmas 1953, it was up and running.

Today, more than a half century later, we know Detroit was right. Line 5 helped make possible the appalling history of toxic pollution that earned Sarnia the nickname “Chemical Valley.” Although oil refining in Sarnia dates back to the 19th Century, the explosion in chemical manufacturing facilities in Sarnia occurred after World War I, spurred by the discovery of vast crude oil reserves in Alberta, Canada in 1947. Soon after, Canada’s Interprovincial Pipeline Company (Enbridge’s original name) constructed a 1,000-mile pipeline from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. From there, tankers shipped oil across Lake Superior to Sarnia. The construction of Line 5 made it possible to transport even greater quantities of oil along that final leg to Sarnia, which in turn accelerated the development of the area’s petrochemical industry.

In other words, Line 5 helped create Chemical Valley, one of the most polluted areas in North America. Hundreds of chemical spill over several decades contaminated Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, released cancer-causing toxins into the air, and produced increased levels of cancer and low birth-rates among First Nations inhabitants of the region. That pollution also—as a Bridge Magazine report explained in 2017 and as the City of Detroit warned in 1953 — poses a serious threat to the drinking water of millions of Michigan residents. Detroit knows this story all too well. Having also suffered from decades from a polluting oil refinery, it is Sarnia’s own twin brother, linked, literally and metaphorically, by the St. Clair River like a poisoned umbilical cord.

This month, after what initially appeared to be a step toward finally decommissioning Line 5, the Whitmer administration reversed course. Now, the governor appears to be taking seriously Enbridge’s foolhardy tunnel scheme, a backward-looking infrastructure project far more suited to the 1950s than to our 21st Century. Given the urgency of fossil fuel-induced climate change and the pressing need for a new energy transition, pipeline builders today ought to seem as outdated to us as Paul Bunyan did to Michiganders in 1953.

Add to that the sobering scientific evidence about what a spill in the Great Lakes would mean for the world’s largest source of freshwater as well as the uncertainty about whether a concrete tunnel will really be any safer than the pipeline’s current status and one is hard pressed to understand how anything other than the permanent removal of Line 5 from the Straits makes sense for the future.

The pipeline’s origin story adds one more reason to advocate for its dismantling: as a matter of environmental justice, a reckoning not with the human and environmental damage it might one day produce if it were to burst, but with the decades of damage it has already done.

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.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

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

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

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

Comments

Terri Wilkerson
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 9:12am

Enbridge is already responsible for the TWO largest inland oil spills in the U.S.! Before the 2010 spill in Marshall, MI which resulted in 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River being closed for 2 years, there was the much larger spill in 1991 when Line 3 broke pouring over 1.7 million gallons of oil near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Wake up Governor Whitmer! Please call her (517-373-3400) and tell her to protect Michigan’s economy and water - we don’t need Line 5 in any form. We were lucky last April that the anchor drag only put 3 dents in the 66 year old Line 5 and didn’t snap it! Line 5 is a time bomb which needs to be removed from the Straits.

Terri Wilkerson
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 9:12am

Enbridge is already responsible for the TWO largest inland oil spills in the U.S.! Before the 2010 spill in Marshall, MI which resulted in 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River being closed for 2 years, there was the much larger spill in 1991 when Line 3 broke pouring over 1.7 million gallons of oil near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Wake up Governor Whitmer! Please call her (517-373-3400) and tell her to protect Michigan’s economy and water - we don’t need Line 5 in any form. We were lucky last April that the anchor drag only put 3 dents in the 66 year old Line 5 and didn’t snap it! Line 5 is a time bomb which needs to be removed from the Straits.

Yooper4
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 9:17am

Great opinion piece....... We all use the stuff, so really we are to blame not the pipeline or the refineries? Much safer and environmentally friendly to produce and manufacture the stuff here in North America than oversees. Next time write a piece on non-North American sources of oil and refining and please focus on the social atrocities related to the development and their lack of environmental controls. Unfair and not objective to pick on one location and not compare it to other practicable alternatives. There are impacts for whatever we do in life and the decisions we make, but without comparing alternatives and their impacts there really is no objectiveness. Fossil fuels keep me warm and this world would be a harsh (and cold place) to live without them, especially in northern Michigan. Let's change our ways as a society, but this will take time and for the next few decades we still need the stuff.

Kevin in Waterford
Thu, 05/16/2019 - 9:35am

Why expose ourselves to such risk from transport of petroleum across such vast distances? More regional refineries would reduce the risk of spillage. Yes, we would have to pay for it somehow, but eventually we all pay for energy, including the mishaps.

Jake
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 9:44am

"as well as the uncertainty about whether a concrete tunnel will really be any safer than the pipeline’s current status..."

This astonishingly disingenuous and unserious statement is practically enough to disqualify the author's entire piece.

Alex Sagady
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 2:15pm

This comment is even worse lying in this article....
>>>>"from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. From there, tankers shipped oil across Lake Superior to Sarnia. The construction of Line 5 made it possible to transport even greater quantities of oil along that final leg to Sarnia, which in turn accelerated the development of the area’s petrochemical industry."
.....as construction of Line 5 in the early 1950s mostly eliminated the
marine crude oil tanker traffic that was once common on Lake Superior and Lake Huron
prior to Line 5's construction.
>>>>n other words, Line 5 helped create Chemical Valley, one of the most polluted areas in North America. Hundreds of chemical spill over several decades contaminated Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, released cancer-causing toxins into the air, and produced increased levels of cancer and low birth-rates among First Nations inhabitants of the region.

This is more nonsense. There is no basis to claim that Sarnia, Ontario is "one of the most polluted areas in North America."

Jeffrey Insko
Sun, 05/12/2019 - 6:31pm

It's odd that Alex Sagady would accuse me of "lying" when, at the very same time, he concedes the the literal point of the statement I make: that the construction of Line 5 made it possible to transport greater quantities of oil to Sarnia. I don't dispute that doing so mostly eliminated the transport of oil by tanker. Again that is what my statement literally says. What a strange comment.

As for pollution in Sarnia, I would simply encourage readers to look into this for themselves. There have been mountains of studies and journalistic reports about the history of pollution in Chemical Valley.

Bones
Mon, 05/13/2019 - 9:36am

Jeff, a good deal of the Bridge's commentariat are morons. Don't worry too much about them

David Holtz
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 10:06am

Great job telling Line 5's sordid history and putting it's present threat to Michigan's families in context. Shut down Line 5 now!

Yooper4
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 3:11pm

Agree that an article describing all of the good that Line 5 has brought to our lives wouldn't generate much readership or fund raising opportunities. We couldn't even sit at our computers and type these ridiculous one sided comments without fossil fuels and the benefits they have provided.

leonard page
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 10:15am

the debate seems to be that the 1300 bpd stripped out and rapid river for UP propane use (3-4 propane trucks per day) and the 30,000 bpd delivered to detroit marathon (less than 1% of Michigan's daily gas consumption ) is vital. many alternatives exist for both and two studies show shutting down line 5 would mean pennies a gallon temporary price increases. regardless of the debate over these alleged benefits, why would Michigan accept any risk of an oil spill in the upper great lakes.? a 2.5 million worst case spill would cause damage beyond our comprehension.

Bones
Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:53am

What fake facts? Why is a propane dealer with a material interest in Line 5 remaining open more factual or less biased? Why are reactionaries so transparently disingenuous?

Alex Sagady
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 2:26pm

>>>>"Having also suffered from decades from a polluting oil refinery, it is Sarnia’s own twin brother, linked, literally and metaphorically, by the St. Clair River like a poisoned umbilical cord."
This is more of the author's false characterization of the condition of the St. Clair River which complies with all Great Lakes water quality standards.

Jeffrey Insko
Sun, 05/12/2019 - 6:36pm

Once again, I would just encourage readers to investigate for themselves the history of pollution in the St. Clair River, which the U.S. EPA declared an Area of Concern in 1987 owing, in part (as the EPA says) to "unregulated discharges from municipal and industrial facilities, including petroleum refineries." There is no question that the river is better now, but whether that's good enough-- and whether "Great Lakes water quality standards" are good enough-- are different questions altogether.

William Bailey
Fri, 05/10/2019 - 5:05pm

The efforts which went into designing the tunnel plan for Line 5 are admirable and well thought through; this kind of flaming is just someones ill informed opinion; Enbridge is aware of criticism but the tunnel is infinitely better planned and better documented that this writer understands.

Jeffrey Kless
Sat, 05/11/2019 - 8:35pm

Interesting comments. Have you seen the construction design documents? How many tunnels have you designed and or worked on? Who is Robbins?

Engineer1999
Mon, 05/13/2019 - 11:41am

Mr. Insko, interesting history, however, I'd like you to look forward for a moment instead. Since you're the first Line 5 opponent I've seen that even remotely acknowledged the shipping traffic offset by the pipeline, I'd like to know what you're thinking will happen if the line is shutdown. Say you got your wish tomorrow and it closed. Are you assuming that many of the refineries in Sarnia just give up and shut down as well? Are you assuming they will not start shipping the crude by tanker over the Great Lakes again? Or, do you view that as a lessor risk? Are you assuming that the pipeline gets re-routed through Canada and that is a much lessor risk? If any of these are your visions, please explain their basis. On a slightly different point, why isn't the solution to the pollution in Sarnia to clean up the refineries and enhance the regulations, that you mention are inadequate, there? Essentially, what happens if you only kill only one bird with one stone? If the line shuts down, but the refineries don't, isn't that still necessary? Also, regarding the proposed tunnel, the descriptions so for are not a concrete box on the bottom of the straits, as you seem to envision (which, I agree would not be an improvement), but a concrete box in the bedrock underneath the bottom of the straits. I'm tired of the debate over IF it should be shut down, because it is all too often emotional and repetitious on both sides, I want to know what happens if it is. Thank you.

Jeffrey Insko
Mon, 05/13/2019 - 3:05pm

Engineer1999: I appreciate your question, though I suspect you're not going to find my answer particularly satisfying. And I'll preface this by saying a full answer requires much more space than a comments section like this (which is one reason I'm writing a book). But here goes: your question implies a future that is identical to the present but without Line 5, a future in which the same quantities of oil are shipped (whether by pipeline or tanker or whatever) to the same number of refineries that continue to produce the same amount of petrochemical products and fuels that will be combusted and consumed in the same ways and at similar rates as the present. But that future is unsustainable. That future, in fact, is going to kill the planet. In my view, we ought to view shutting down Line 5 as part of a much larger--and necessary-- transformation (or series of transformations; perhaps it can even be a catalyst for those transformations. I don't pretend to have all of the practical answers to how we will meet that challenge; I'm not a scientist or an engineer or a policymaker. What I do know is that we need to stop asking how we can keep doing all the things we're accustomed to doing in the absence of Line 5 and start asking what we might do instead, what kind of sustainable future its decommissioning might help make possible.