Michiganders concerned about two 61-year-old oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac will be at the Labor Day Bridge Walk seeking walkers’ signatures for a letter to their fellow strider, Gov. Rick Snyder, about the matter.
Members of citizen groups from around the state will be in Mackinaw City on Labor Day, but they won’t be on vacation.
Instead, they will be at the south end of the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk, collecting signatures for a letter aimed at the most prominent of the event’s predicted 50,000 striders, Gov. Rick Snyder.
The letter urges the governor, who is running for re-election, to immediately confront what they see as a grave threat to the Great Lakes lurking beneath the Mackinac Straits’ stunning, aqua-blue waters: two 61-year-old pipelines that daily carry more than 22 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids between Superior, Wis., and refineries in Sarnia, Ont.
Dressed in lake-blue shirts and green hats, brandishing clipboards and brochures, and handing out stickers proclaiming, “Oil & Water Don’t Mix—I Walked the Bridge,” the volunteers and the groups organizing the effort hope to convince the governor to use a powerful state law that could supplement federal pipeline regulations and better protect the Straits from a potentially ruinous oil pipeline spill.
The pipes are operated by Canadian-owned Enbridge Energy Partners, responsible for the near-record, nearly one-million-gallon spill of tar sands oil that seriously harmed 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River, near Marshall, Mich., in July 2010. Cleaning up the huge mess took three years and cost more than a billion dollars.
Despite assurances from Enbridge that the company learned hard lessons from that disaster and treats the Straits lines with extraordinary care, the groups pushing the letter under the Oil and Water Don’t Mix aegis are unconvinced. They point to the more than 800 spills the company reported over 10 years, including almost 250,000 gallons spilled from other sections of the pipe, known as Line 5, elsewhere in Michigan.
Instead of trusting Enbridge to do the right thing over the coming decades, the groups are pushing the governor to use Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act to force the company to apply for a permit for the existing, submerged lines. The state passed the Act several years after the pipes began pumping oil, in 1953, but attorneys with the citizen groups say that, because the lines lay on public lands, the state can still use public trust law and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act to protect the Straits and lakes.
Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Traverse City non-profit working on Great Lakes water legal and policy issues, said the groups will not be satisfied until the state uses the Act to formally evaluate the line’s legality and regulatory shortcomings.
“Although Enbridge built Line 5 a few years before the Submerged Lands Act was passed, the state has the perpetual responsibility to make sure it lives up to all contemporary legal standards,” Kirkwood said. “The state has been derelict in doing that for more than 60 years, and it’s time to begin the process the Act requires immediately.”
Snyder and Schauer Respond
The letter volunteers will be asking walkers to sign is a short version of a seven-page letter sent to Snyder on July 1 by 17 citizen groups and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, saying the risk the pipes present is unacceptable. They requested, and got, a meeting with members of a Snyder administration task force that is now looking at pipelines throughout the state, evaluating answers from Enbridge to a list of technical questions, and requiring the firm to install supports beneath the pipes.
Representatives from the Environmental Law & Policy Center, FLOW, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Michigan Land Use Institute, Sierra Club Michigan and the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council met on Aug. 18 with, among others, Department of Environmental Quality chief Dan Wyant, Department of Natural Resources director Keith Creagh, several representatives from the attorney general’s office, and Snyder’s energy policy coordinator, Valerie Brader.
The groups say the task force told them it takes their complaints very seriously; would conduct a yearlong study of the legalities, economics, engineering, and practical options for the pipeline; and the groups were welcome to track the process and contribute to it.
But the groups fear the response is a way to postpone the issue until after the November election. They said the administration should immediately apply for a permit for the Straits pipes under the Act, and use the resulting public process to determine the lines’ legality and safety.
Meanwhile, with the election 10 weeks away, Republican Snyder’s Democratic rival, Mark Schauer, is taking an aggressive stance on the issue.
“The state must get tough on polluters like Enbridge and require it to replace its aging pipelines like Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac, to ensure pipeline safety and prevent future oil spills,” the candidate says in the “Blueprint for Jobs” page on his Web site.
The groups haven’t decided whether replacing the pipeline is the best solution, or if there is another way to remove the threat of a spill other than removing the pipeline entirely. They want the governor to begin a public process that will lead to a decision on how best to protect the Great Lakes from the two pipelines.
“The important thing is to get moving right now,” said David Holtz, chairman of the Michigan Sierra Club. “Delaying action is not our friend. These pipes aren’t getting any younger and we don’t want to look back a year from now and still be talking about it instead of solving the problem.”
And while the groups do fear delay could harm their cause and prolong the pipeline’s risks, they also note the progress they’ve made over the past year.
From Marshall to Mackinac
Concern about the Straits pipes first surfaced after the Kalamazoo spill, when the National Wildlife Federation reported on Enbridge’s chronic spill problem throughout its network of pipelines crisscrossing the Midwest.
NWF then investigated Line 5 and, three months after its first report, published Sunken Hazard in July 2012, which described the effects of a major leak at the Straits. A number of northern Michigan groups, including FLOW, MEC, NWF, and TC350, staged a rally about the issue last July in the small park at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, attracting 400 people, strong media interest, and increased official and citizen interest.
In December 2013, U.S. Senators Levin (D-Mich.), Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Durbin (D-Ill.) asked the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency to verify the safety of the line. PHMSA responded twice, in January and in April 2014, listing steps both it and Enbridge took to improve safety.
At about the same time, Enbridge and the Snyder administration began reacting to the public pressure.
Enbridge posted an undated, elaborate, 27-page report, Enbridge Energy, Limited Partnership: Operational Reliability Plan, Line 5 and Line 5 Straits Crossing, filled with diagrams, data, pictures and explanations of the ways the company says it makes sure the line does not leak.
Severely criticized after an underwater video by NWF revealed the pipes had no supports beneath them—a clear, 61-year-long violation of the 1953 easement—the company filed for a state permit on April 29 to install the structures.
On the same day, in what looked like a carefully choreographed move, the Snyder administration sent Enbridge a letter requesting more information about the pipes.
Enbridge provided the information two months later, on June 27.
Then, on July 24, the same careful coordination between company and agencies seemed to occur again: Attorney General Scheutte formally and very publicly ordered Enbridge to install the supports, even as the administration simultaneously approved the company’s three-month old application to do exactly that.
The company said it would begin installing supports in early August.
But across the winter and well into spring, concern about the pipeline continued to spread.
In February, hundreds of local citizens packed a forum in St. Ignace hosted by Enbridge and local emergency response officials; many who attended were skeptical, if not derisive, about claims that a good plan was in place to contain oil spills in the Straits’ often-difficult weather conditions, particularly in the winter, when the lakes freeze.
In June, a similar forum produced similar reactions in Petoskey.
A few weeks later, the University of Michigan and NWF released a study and animations describing how a pipeline oil spill would spread out from the Straits in a variety of situations. And, in northern Michigan, MLUI and other groups involved in Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign continued to turn up the heat on the governor and Enbridge, running a TV ad about the issue.
“Our initial goal is to make sure as many people as possible know about this pipeline,” according to TC350’s Bill Latka, an award-winning producer and director who created the 30-second spot. “We’re gathering names of concerned citizens as quickly as we can, and, after the Bridge Walk, we’ll be contacting them and suggesting next steps they can take to keep pressure on the administration.”
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.