Study shows old oil pipelines are risk to Straits of Mackinac (UPDATED)

At the bottom of the Great Lakes are multiple great oil lines. They move oil from the great white north of Canada into the cities of the United States. But what if these pipes were to suddenly burst?

Producer note: In bold are web updates from Enbridge regarding the pipelines which were not in the broadcast version of this story. 

At the bottom of the Great Lakes are multiple great oil lines. They move oil from the great white north of Canada into the cities of the United States. But what if these pipes were to suddenly burst? That question is exactly what environmentalists set out to answer.

The next time you head up to Mackinac Island to sample some of that tasty fudge or decide gaze upon Sugar Loaf or Arch Rock, let this sink in: it could all be gone if the 62-year-old pipe, that runs near the Mackinac Bridge, were to give way.

The large, old, and still very active pipelines lie underneath the currents and environmentalists predict a potential disaster for the entire state. They start in St. Ignace and then stretch for five miles across the Straits of Mackinac and into Mackinaw City.

Enbridge, an energy delivery company based in Alberta, Canada, owns and operates the two side-by-side pipelines which run along the west side of Mackinac Bridge. You may remember Enbridge from the summer of 2010 - when the largest inland spill in United State history happened. Nearly 26,200 barrels of crude oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River.

Enbridge blames employee error and equipment failure. Enbridge Community Relations Manager Jason Manshum said the company learned from the spill.

"At the end of the day, what that incident has done is make us a far safer company," Manshum said. "We work hard with our emergency response crews, our managers, and entities like the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Coast guard and the state of Michigan."

Manshum said the line was designed to last indefinitely - if it's properly maintained and operated. We're told the pipelines are very durable, made of steel with an enamel and tar coal coating. They're 20 inches in diameter, with walls an eighth-of-an-inch thick.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email that Line 5, at .812 inches, is the thickest pipeline in its system.

Since the pipes were constructed in 1953, they've carried  490,000 barrels per day of light crude oil and other natural gas liquids into the lower peninsula. In 2012, that amount was increased to 540,000 barrels per day. Some of the materials are then refined and sent back to Canada. But Duffy said that about 30 percent of the oil on Line 5 is refined in Detroit area refineries for use in Michigan.

“About 95 percent of homes in northern Michigan use the product from Line 5 to heat their homes,” Duffy said.

Manshum says safety precautions are in place to protect the Lakes from a leak. Divers use underwater conduct inspections every two years to monitor the lines and Enbridge has facilities at each end of the Straits with emergency shut off valves.

But those measures simply aren't enough, according to Doctor Dave Schwab, a scientist at the University of Michigan, and Doctor Mike Shriberg of the National Wildlife Federation.

"The worst place in the Great Lakes to have an oil spill," Dr. Schwab said. "People don't realize how strong the currents are in the Straits of Mackinac, and how rapidly they change."

Dr. Schwab has conducted studies on the Great Lakes for 40 years and shared his findings first to FOX 2.

"What's coming out now is an actual simulation of oil spills in the Straits of Mackinac. I ran hundreds and hundreds of spill cases, under different weather conditions to show which way oil could move, how fast it could move, and how much shoreline could be affected," Dr. Schwab said.

But that's not all. The vast amount of coastline that would be impacted by a potential spill troublesome.

"The areas that could possibly be impacted from a spill, extends from Saginaw Bay, the Straits, down almost to Grand Traverse Bay, on the shore from the Garden Peninsula in Michigan, over to Manitou Island," he said.

The study suggests, almost any level of spill would be impossible to contain. It also says oil could hit the coast of Mackinaw City within 2-and-a-half hours. What makes that location worse, Dr. Shriberg said, is the straits themselves.

"The Mackinac Straits are a very unpredictable place for where the oil is going to go," Dr. Shriberg said. "Under the best of scenarios, oil recovery gets about 30% of the oil. In the Straits of Mackinac, there would be very little oil recovery under ice."

The National Wildlife Federation decided to take a look at Line 5 themselves, taking an underwater expedition in 2015.  They found the pipelines covered in trash and zebra mussels, but more alarmingly, is what they didn't find. Missing support beams required by Federal law. Enbridge and the state of Michigan say, they have now been added.

Enbridge says that there have never been zebra mussels found on Line 5 but instead quagga mussels which do not pose a threat.

“Our research  has shown (they) can’t penetrate the pipeline coating,” Duffy said.

"We know that there has been some corrosion of the pipes and that is generally what causes spills and leaks. But Enbridge has not, after repeated requests, from organizations such as my own, provided that safety data," Dr. Shriberg said. "It's very hard to take what Enbridge is saying about safety at face-value. I think we have to make a choice. Do we entrust this company to say, yep, it's ok, everything's all right, you can entrust the Great Lakes to us? Or do we, as a state and as a group of citizens, want to take control of that?"


Almost 300 miles away, in the city of Marysville, similar requests from Water Treatment Supervisor Bari Wrubel to Enbridge have been ignored.

"We reached out to them a couple times and it never materialized," Wrubel said.

Marysville is located on the banks of the St. Clair River, another body of water connecting the Great Lakes where we found oil pipelines running across the bed. Sources tell us there are 16 pipelines ranging in size and age, many carrying oil and other hazardous materials. The spots where they lie are marked by signs telling boaters, "beware."

"We have inner city connections between Port Huron and ourselves, as well as Lake St. Clair, we could open those up, to receive their treated water, but depending on where the location of the spill, St. Clair would probably be out of the picture as well," Wrubel said.

The pipelines are owned and operated by a variety of companies. The oldest were built in 1918 and are currently idle. But they could soon begin transporting crude oil, if a highly debated permit is granted to Plains All-American Pipeline, based in Texas. Wrubel says the pipelines lie just a few hours from the plant's intake for drinking water.

"You could potentially, without this equipment, pass it through your plant and out to the distribution system into people's homes. That's the number one reason, why we'll always have it here," Wrubel said.

He's referring to a hydrocarbon detection network, he set up through a federal grant to 14 communities along the coast in 2006. These plants, from Monroe to Port Huron, provide water for more than 4 million people.

"Now we can pick up oils and gas-type spills in the river. Anything hydrocarbon. It'll pick up, it will notify to set off the alarms, and within one minute's time we can start shutting things down at the plant," he said.

But the grant money ran dry. Then half of the communities stopped using the system because they didn't want to fund it themselves. In one case, a proposal failed asking homeowners for just 25 cents more per year.


So who is going to oversee the safety of all oil pipelines? The state of Michigan has come up with a plan to find the best and brightest to identify the problem.

Attorney General Bill Schuette holds a seat on the petroleum pipeline task force board, which was formed by Governor Rick Snyder. In May of 2015, Governor Snyder first announced the formation of a task force publicly after protesters crashed his speech during the annual Mackinac Policy Conference at the Grand Hotel.

But the board of 15 people was not officially formed until September 3, 2015, when this video was posted online.

"The Michigan Pipeline Advisory Board will help protect our environment, while assuring safe, affordable and reliable energy," Attorney General Bill Schuette said.

Schuette is on the board but one leader is not. Former Director of the DEQ, Dan Wyant, resigned from his post in December following the fall-out from Flint Water Crisis.

We're told the task force is moving forward and board members say the next big step is scheduled for June 1st, 2017, when the board will present a risk and alternatives analysis to the Governor.

"We'll figure out exactly what the best alternative is, whether it's a pipeline around the lakes, whether it's using boats, or it's using boats or it's using trucks, there are many alternatives that are out there and we're evaluating all of them independently," Schuette said.

Governor Snyder did not respond to FOX 2's request for comments.

Governor Snyder holds the executive authority to immediately shut down any pipeline on state property, if he sees enough risk. But shutting down any line would mean losing money.

"Between the lines we have in Michigan, we're paying nearly $23 million dollars to the State in tax revenue," Manshum said.

The state also hasn't complied with our request to know how much money Enbridge is dishing out, specifically for Line 5.  However, the pipeline is a lifeline for things Americans do every single day.

"If Line 5 didn't exist, what would happen here for our fuel in our automobiles for example, we would lose, 120,000 refills at the pump daily. So 120,000 tanks every single day could not be filled with gas for their car," Manshum said.

That, Dr. Shriberg says, is "economic blackmail."

"There is a small amount of oil that flows under the Straits that stays in Michigan. It's a small enough quantity that can be made up for with existing pipelines. So there is nothing at risk for Michigan's economy here. There are jobs provided by Enbridge, the high level figure they give is 250 jobs, but compare those 250 jobs to all the jobs in recreational tourism alone,"  Dr. Shriberg said the risk simply isn't worth it.  "Look at the water intakes that are potentially at risk here, look at the number of state parks that are at risk here, look at the recreational tourism economy."

Manshum maintains that Enbridge can be trusted, despite the disaster that happened six years ago.

"There's no doubt that what happened in the Kalamazoo River was a game changer," Manshum said. "It takes time to rebuild that level of trust, but that's what we're doing now. We're very involved with communities that are near the pipeline and communities that are anywhere along the Great Lakes and inland water ways, and what we're trying to do is provide them fact-based information."

The fate of the Lakes is ultimately up to the people, and what we chose to see and believe. We can keep looking what we see on the surface. The beauty of Pure Michigan, the way things have been the last 50 years, and hold onto the hope that any threat of danger will drift by.  Or, is it up to us to dive deeper, where the real truth may not be so pretty.


  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories you may be interested in - includes Advertiser Stories