Site News & Announcements
Jan 18, 2017
Two 63-year-old pipes lie exposed at the bottom of the current-whipped Straits of Mackinac, determined by one expert to be "the worst possible place" for a spill in all the Great Lakes.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel January 18, 2017 (part 2 of series)
Two 63-year-old pipes lie exposed at the bottom of the current-whipped Straits of Mackinac, determined by one expert to be "the worst possible place" for a spill in all the Great Lakes.
It seemed like a no-brainer at the time.
Instead of using tankers to haul crude oil across the treacherous open waters of the Great Lakes, in 1953 a Canadian pipeline company determined it would be easier and cheaper to take that oil off the lakes, put it in a pipe, and pump it hundreds of miles overland to Midwestern refineries.
The pipeline builders had two choices to get the oil to market from a terminal in far northern Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Superior.
They could tunnel down the length of Wisconsin, around the southern shore of Lake Michigan and across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to the refinery city of Sarnia, Ontario. Or they could take a more northerly route, digging through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and then southward across the Lower Peninsula.
The northern route was shorter, but there was one mighty obstacle, the Straits of Mackinac — a channel, four to five miles wide, between Lakes Michigan and Huron that is whipsawed by currents unlike anywhere else in the Great Lakes.
Engineers figured they could solve the problem by splitting the pipeline into two narrower pipes where it reached the water’s edge, then doubling the thickness of the steel on the smaller pipes and coating them with an enamel skin.
It was all protection enough, the builders figured, to allow the twin tubes to be laid across the lake bottom. Nothing like it had ever been tried: “It is the longest and deepest job we’ve done since we started this sort of work in Arabia some 15 years ago,” the project’s lead engineer said at the time.
The plan was to initially run about 120,000 barrels of oil through the Straits per day and gradually ramp that up to 300,000 barrels per day. Over time the volume grew.
The pipes were not expanded, replaced or thickened to increase the oil and natural gas they carry; the capacity was largely added by increasing pressure on the steel tubes. In 2013, the pipeline owner ratcheted up the maximum capacity on the lines to 540,000 barrels per day.
That is a volume far greater than the 470,000 barrels per day planned for the state-of-the-art Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew thousands of protesters to the Great Plains this fall. Many were upset over the risk the Dakota line poses to the Missouri River, though engineers never planned to drape the pipe across the river bottom. Instead, they prepared to tunnel the pipe as deep as 115 feet below the riverbed to protect the waters above.
Given the age of the Mackinac lines, and the fact that they were laid in what one prominent hydrodynamics expert now calls the “worst possible” place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes, environmentalists, politicians and Michigan regulators are taking a new look at the old pipes.
Many still see the idea of running oil lines through the heart of the Great Lakes, home to 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, as a no-brainer. But from the opposite perspective.
“Certainly, the Straits pipelines would not be built today,” Michigan’s Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette has said. “So how many more tomorrows (they) should operate is limited in duration.”
The State of Michigan has ordered a study of the environmental and economic risks the pipes pose to the Great Lakes, as well as an analysis of other ways to deliver the 23 million gallons of crude and natural gas they are capable of carrying each day.
One obvious alternative would be to move that oil along a pipeline route that runs the length of Wisconsin and wraps around the southern shore of Lake Michigan. It is operated by the same oil pipeline giant, Enbridge Energy Company Inc.
Both studies, funded by Enbridge but not overseen by the company, are expected to be completed later this year.
In the meantime, resolutions calling for closing the Michigan pipes or vastly restricting them have been passed by more than 60 Michigan local governments, including Detroit, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Kalamazoo.
Enbridge complains it has become the victim of fearmongering. Company executives say the Mackinac lines were built for the ages and that regular inspections using side-scan sonar, remote cameras and MRI-like devices placed inside the carbon steel tubes prove they are basically as good as new. They argue there is no reason to talk about scrapping or rebuilding them — now or in the foreseeable future.
“We know from the many levels of inspections and diagnostics that the line is in very good condition and can continue to safely operate indefinitely so obsolescence is not a factor,” company officials wrote in a 2015 memo to Schuette, the attorney general, and to former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant.
Wyant and Schuette’s response, which came in a report prepared by the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force: “This is not a reasonable position.”
As Enbridge assured the public its pipelines were highly unlikely to leak, the company also announced in June it would invest $7 million in oil spill cleanup equipment designed for the Arctic-like environment of the Mackinac Straits.
“Hopefully, we’ll never need it, but it’s there,” said Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy.
Enbridge also has stationed a half dozen employees in a garage-like building tucked behind the Family Fare grocery store in St. Ignace, on the northern shore of the Straits. The crew’s job, beyond basic daily maintenance work, is to be ready around the clock — and around the calendar — if the pipelines crack.
Enbridge officials insist the Mackinac pipes are different from any other section in their vast network of North American pipelines because the Mackinac pipes were specifically engineered to withstand the Straits’ brutal underwater environment.
Even some of the company’s staunchest critics concede the twin lines, old as they may be, remain an engineering marvel.
But that doesn’t mean the risk the pipes pose to the world’s largest freshwater system is small.
“Risk is an equation, P times C — probability times consequence,” says Traverse City attorney Jim Olson, founder of the environmental group FLOW, which is calling for the pipes to be shut down.
“If the magnitude of the consequence is high, the probability doesn’t really matter. That is the case here. This is like the ammunition plant in the middle of a city. You just wouldn’t build an ammo plant in the middle of a city.”
Better than boats
In 1950, Enbridge’s predecessor, Interprovincial Pipe Line Company, built a pipeline linking the newly developed Alberta oil fields to the western shore of Lake Superior. The first barrel of oil took 26 days to make the 1,150-mile trip from Edmonton to Superior.
The oil that flowed across the continent that winter was stored in tanks near the lakeshore until the spring thaw. It was then loaded onto a specially built fleet of 620-foot-long tankers, each of which cost $4.5 million and could hold 6 million gallons of crude, then shipped across Lakes Superior and Huron to the refinery city of Sarnia.
Beyond the cost and time of loading and unloading the oil, and the risks involved with floating it across some of the stormiest freshwaters on the globe, the tankers could only operate for eight ice-free months each year. Nevertheless, that first season boats hauled nearly 600 million gallons across the lakes without incident — almost.
Near the end of the season one of the new ships exploded while docked in Sarnia, just after its hold had been emptied of 5 million gallons.
One person was killed and five were injured. It could have been far worse had the tanker not been empty; the explosion happened just 300 yards from a cluster of refinery tanks, and those tanks were only about 800 yards from Sarnia’s main business district.
In 1952, pipeline builders began to explore a safer option — laying a steel tube from Superior to Sarnia. After briefly considering routing the pipe through Wisconsin, the company opted to take the shortcut across the Upper Peninsula. The project required laying 645 miles of pipe, including crossing the Straits of Mackinac, which is nearly 250 feet deep in places.
The engineers wanted to split the line where it crossed the straits into two smaller pipelines because those would be easier to install, and if one of the twins needed to be turned off, oil could keep flowing through the other.
The configuration also allowed the pipes to operate well below the maximum pressure they were designed for, which was safer and increased their lifespan.
The pipeline builders traveled throughout the region in early 1953 selling the concept to residents as “essential to the defense of the United States and the whole North American continent.”
It cost the company just $2,450 to get an easement across the state-owned lake bottom to lay two pipes that were made of steel nearly 7/8-inch thick, about double the gauge of the pipe that would run over land.
The agreement said the pipes must be buried in the lakebed until the water reached a depth of 65 feet, to protect them from ice and anchor damage from freighters traveling the congested shipping corridor. Michigan also required that the pipes not stretch unsupported for more than 75 feet along the rolling lake bottom, to keep the pipes from swaying — and possibly cracking — in the swift, ever-changing currents.
The pipeline builder knew the stakes were high because of the pipes’ potential to break in the Straits, which the company noted would be financially disastrous.
“Not only would the construction of such a line be a very costly venture, which would have to be completed during the relatively brief period during late spring and summer when the Straits were not frozen over but the loss in revenue which would result from any possible break in the line and shutdown of the flow would be of the most serious importance,” a company report at the time stated.
The company added that the possible contamination of lake waters also was a concern, and that it would make “every effort” to ensure that this would not happen.
“Operation Big Pull” began the first week of August 1953.
It required hundreds of laborers and engineers to weld sections of pipes into tubes approximately 4 miles long. They were assembled by welding 27-foot sections, though each individual section has no seam running its length — a distinct safety feature of the lines. The pipes were then dragged into the lake with a cable attached to a specially built winch.
The $8.5 million project was hailed in the press as “the engineering feat of this generation” and bleachers erected along the lakeshore were packed with “petroleum men from all over the world.” The construction crews weren’t only concerned about doing the work right; they wanted to do it with flair.
“Some 600 crewmen and engineers aimed for a speed record Friday as a second four-mile oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac was pulled underwater,” the Associated Press reported Sept. 19, 1953, noting that a construction spokesman was hoping the work could be trimmed to 60 hours. “The official said he knew of no other underwater project to ever be completed so quickly. The first Straits pipeline took 65 work hours.”
Bruce Trudgen, a retired automotive engineer, was a college student in the summer of 1953 working as a member of the survey crew that laid the route across the lake’s bottom.
He said the workers didn’t simply drop the pipe to the lake bottom.
“We had to do some dredging, because the bottom of the lake is hilly, and the pipes would get bent over those hills and valleys,” Trudgen, now deceased, recalled in an interview last summer.
So they dug trenches through the undulations on the lakebed to keep the pipes as snug as possible against the bottom, which is substantially clay, sand and pebbles.
Once the pipes were lowered into place, the engineers assumed they would stay there because all that dense material was stable.
It was a big assumption, and it was wrong.
Lakes Michigan and Huron are actually two lobes of one giant lake connected at the Straits of Mackinac, but about 8,000 years ago the lakes were truly separate bodies of water. The old Lake Michigan outflow was a river that tumbled easterly, around today’s Mackinac Island and then plunged in a 100-foot waterfall into the old Lake Huron.
The lake levels gradually climbed and eventually swallowed both the falls and the old river channel. But in a sense, the old river never disappeared; water still flows through the Straits today at a rate equivalent to more than 10 Niagara Falls, depending on the day.
Unlike a river, water in the Straits doesn’t always flow in one direction. It can flow east or west, or north or south, changing directions not just over the course of several days, but by the hour. The randomness of the whooshing currents was first documented by French explorer Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron Lahontan:
“In some seasons, it so falls out that the Currents run three days Eastward, two days to the West, one to the South and four Northward; sometimes more and sometimes less,” he wrote in 1688. “The cause of this diversity of currents could never be fathom’d, for in a calm, they’ll run in the space of one day to all points of the Compass; i.e. sometimes one way, sometimes another, without any limitation of time.”
The oscillations are driven by precipitation patterns, water temperatures, atmospheric pressure and winds. Those winds can be extraordinarily strong through the Straits, so strong that they can tip over trailer trucks on the Mackinac Bridge, another Straits-spanning engineering marvel built in the 1950s.
The winds whistling through the bridge cables and deck grating were considered a potential factor in the death of a woman who lost control of her blue Yugo in fall 1989. The car flipped over the bridge railing, dropping more than 140 feet to the water below, and then another 150 feet down to the lake bottom.
But it is more than water and wind that rip through the Straits. So does the material on the lake bottom. The currents measured today can, at times, be double what the original pipeline engineers calculated. That rushing water has been inexorably scouring away the lakebed upon which the pipes were originally placed. This has created unsupported spans in the pipelines the design engineers never expected.
“The problem was, over time, the current flowing back and forth has eroded under the pipe,” pipeline construction worker Trudgen said. “The bottom is not stable.”
Enbridge executives contend that the pipes are so strong that even a 140-foot unsupported span is safe. Still, in late summer 2015, the company maintained it was “fully compliant” with the state requirement of no unsupported spans greater than 75 feet.
That confidence was gone the following summer. In August of last year, the company applied for a permit to install up to 22 new lake-bottom supports to fortify unsupported spans on the lines, including four locations the company acknowledged are in violation of the 75-foot span limit.
The company said the out-of-compliance spans were relatively new. But the company also made it clear that it was not just worried about complying with the 75-foot limit; it was worried about the integrity of the pipelines.
“The no-build option presents a future risk to the pipeline and is not a viable option,” the company stated in its permit application last summer, an application the State of Michigan has yet to accept or deny.
This was not the first time company engineers were concerned about the physical integrity of the pipelines.
Ten years after the pipes were installed, operators conducted an underwater inspection and reported no need to construct additional supports to keep them from spanning emerging gaps on the bottom. Trouble evidently started in 1975, when three spots were deemed in need of support, and the company responded by propping up the pipelines with sacks filled with cement-like grout.
In 1987, seven more grout-bag supports were added. In 1992, six more spots were fortified. An inspection in 1997 revealed no apparent problems, but four years later it was a disturbingly different story.
On a Friday in September 2001, Enbridge officials contacted Michigan environmental regulators and reported they needed to do “emergency preventative” work on the pipeline. The urgent tone of a memo contradicts the company’s insistence today that this has always been a pipeline built for the ages, one that can operate “indefinitely.”
By the following Monday, that application — written in pen — arrived on the desk of state environmental regulators.
“Project is to provide support underneath our pipelines in sections where the pipeline spans un-supported over too great a distance,” Enbridge staff wrote. “In order to maintain the integrity and safety — these maintenance repairs can wait no longer.”
Eight supports were placed that fall, but the job wasn’t done. Sixteen more were added in 2003. These were not sacks of grout, but steel brackets held in place by giant screws drilled into the lakebed.
The work still wasn’t done.
In 2004, 16 more of these brackets were placed. In 2005, 14 were added, along with another 12 in 2006. Another seven were installed in 2010, and another 17 in 2012. Two years later, the company installed an additional 40 supports, and reported that the “average” unsupported span would then be less than 50 feet, well within the easement limit of 75 feet.
Two years later — last summer — the company was back with plans to add the 22 new supports.
Pipeline critics worry that even though the pipes might now be more firmly anchored to the ever-eroding lakebed than they were a decade or two ago, the steel could have incurred invisible structural damage during the periods the pipes were left hanging in the swirling current, much like a prizefighter who has taken too many body blows.
“We don’t know how hard it got bent around in those earlier years, so without that data it’s hard to say what condition it is in,” said Ed Timm, a retired senior engineer and oil refinery expert who has become an outspoken critic of the Mackinac pipeline.
Earlier this year, the company, under pressure from Michigan politicians to be more transparent, released data showing that in places the 7/8-inch pipe is actually only about two-thirds that thick. This is something Enbridge attributes not to corrosion but to how the pipe was constructed. The company said these thin spots in no way compromise the safety of the pipe, and in June it released an analysis from an outside firm (using Enbridge data) that affirmed the company’s position that the pipeline remains in excellent shape.
Yet if something, somehow, someday does go wrong, Enbridge officials insist alarms would go off and that valves could be closed within minutes to stanch a spill.
But even if automatic shut-off valves work as designed, in 2015 Enbridge acknowledged a plume of some 200,000 gallons could be unleashed into the Straits.
Worst possible place
The National Wildlife Federation in 2016 hired the University of Michigan’s Dave Schwab to figure out where the Straits currents would drive the oil if a spill ever happened. Schwab, a renowned authority on hydrodynamics, concluded there is no worse place in all of the Great Lakes for a crude oil spill.
Schwab ran 840 simulations under various current, weather and spill scenarios and concluded that up to 152 miles of shoreline could be fouled by a single oil spill, and more than 700 miles of Great Lakes shorelines were vulnerable to a Straits pipeline spill.
Schwab’s models predicted the first oil bursting from the pipes could be washing onto the Straits’ southern shore, near the fudge shop-packed main street of Mackinaw City, in just three hours.
Within nine hours, it could be lapping at the shores of Mackinac Island, home to a colonial fort overlooking the Straits on a 3.8-square-mile patch of rolling forest so scenic it was second only to Yellowstone in being designated a national park. (Yellowstone was established in 1872, and Mackinac three years later, though the park was turned over to the State of Michigan in 1895.)
Schwab evaluated spill scenarios that involved 5,000 barrels, 10,000 barrels and 25,000 barrels. One scenario showed a spill could smother more than 620 square miles of open water and spread so far west it could soon be lapping at the shores of the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula, about 40 miles of open water north of Wisconsin’s Door County.
Timm, the retired engineer, is equally worried about the integrity of the land-based sections of Line 5, which is built of thinner steel.
Those sections have a history of leaking, and also could unleash a massive oil slick upon Lake Michigan were a significant breach to occur. The pipeline crosses some of northern Michigan’s most famous trout streams, all of which flow toward the Great Lakes and all of which, Timm contends, are as ecologically vulnerable as the Straits.
“What’s it worth to not have trout in the Au Sable River for generations?” he asked of the famously trout-rich river. “What I’m saying is every inch of the pipeline needs to be looked at.”
Enbridge has been harshly critical of the Straits study because it did not factor in efforts to contain and clean up a spill in the hours and days after it happened. The company also maintains emergency valves could cap a spill in a matter of minutes so its worst-case spill would be about 5,000 barrels. That’s well under Schwab’s worst-case scenario of 25,000 barrels, or more than 1 million gallons — a figure picked because it is roughly equivalent to Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River spill of 2010.
Steven Keck, the U.S. Coast Guard’s oil spill contingency preparedness specialist in the Upper Peninsula, says the agency has trained for years to respond to an oil break in the Straits.
But he says that the Coast Guard is not the primary party responsible for a cleanup; the agency would coordinate a response but would only augment boats and equipment brought in by Enbridge and its contractors.
Still, if a spill were to happen in winter, the Coast Guard response would be essential, because it owns the ice breakers that could be needed to get recovery equipment to an oil spill.
Keck said no ice breakers are idled near the Straits in case of such a disaster. Rather, they are out doing their job — breaking ice at ports around the Great Lakes or freeing stuck freighters. It could take days for them to respond.
“If they happen to be in the Straits breaking ice, they’re going to be on the scene immediately, obviously. But let’s say they’re down in Chicago. It’s going to take them probably 24 to 48 hours to get up there,” he said. “It really depends on where they’re at, what the ice conditions are and what they are doing."
That doesn’t mean the Coast Guard couldn’t adequately respond to a spill, he said.
“Absolutely we’re confident we can respond. What the ice creates is a challenge, that’s all.”
In some cases, he said, the ice could even help corral the oil, or keep it from drifting on currents and spreading to shorelines.
In fact, Keck said waves at any time of year pose just as big of a problem, if not bigger, because they can keep even the Coast Guard’s biggest ships from responding. Keck wouldn’t put a number on the size of waves it would take for a captain to call off a response, though he said swells of 6 feet could meet that threshold, and waves that size on the lakes are not uncommon.
“You’re going to hope for the best-case circumstance, where you have calm seas, and calm winds and a slow current and open water where you can get at it quickly,” he said.
Anything less than a spill under best-case conditions, particularly if it happens in winter, is going to be rough.
In February 2013, the Coast Guard conducted a four-day spill response exercise in which peat moss and orange peels were used to simulate the crude oil carried by the Mackinac pipes. Here are some highlights of what was learned:
“Operation in cold, low-visibility and high-wind environments are hazardous and require special care and awareness.”
“Ensure onboard heating resources are available to defrost frozen pumps and fittings.”
“Icebreaker may be necessary to ‘break out’ and assist other vessels to make way through ice.”
“Cellphones were not reliable when operating from an open deck while underway due to cold effects on batteries and freezing of electronics. They are also difficult to handle and make calls without removing gloves.”
“More personnel may be required to manage equipment in harsh conditions but may result in increased safety and supervision complexities.”
“Frequent crew rotations are necessary in cold weather.”
Scientists studying previous open water oil disasters at sea have said that a recovery effort is lucky to capture 15% of the oil released in a spill. Crews typically use booms to corral the oil and then skimmers to suck it off the surface and onto barges or other vessels for disposal.
In some cases, if the oil is thick enough, cleanup crews will light it on fire. Usually, the bulk of a spill is left to drift on currents, disperse into the water column and decay. But the Great Lakes are a vastly different environment from the areas of ocean where high-profile spills have historically happened.
“It goes without saying a major spill in the Great Lakes would be a disaster of epic proportions given the fact that we are one of largest bodies of fresh water in the world and millions of people drink the water,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich) told the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in spring 2015.
“With pipelines usually it’s just a matter of time before they leak and a 60-year-old pipe going across five miles of Great Lakes is a frightening prospect for me, particularly coming from Michigan, where we had the largest oil spill, pipeline spill, in history just a few years ago in the Kalamazoo River.”
The Coast Guard’s Zukunft said nothing that day that indicated he was confident his agency could handle such a disaster, or that the lakes would quickly heal themselves.
“That is a very pristine environment and so you don’t have some of the microbes that you do in the Gulf environment that will normally decay what oil remains,” Zukunft said.
One of the reasons the Kalamazoo River disaster was so costly was it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill spill; it was heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands called bitumen, a peanut butter-thick product that has to be infused with chemicals so it can flow in a pipe.
In the case of a heavy crude spill into a body of water, much of it sinks to the bottom. The Mackinac pipeline has not been used to carry bitumen like the Kalamazoo line but instead runs a lighter crude, which is more likely to float.
Last June, the State of Michigan, using Enbridge money, commissioned a firm to evaluate what the financial costs would be of a Straits spill. The study isn’t expected to be finished until later this year at the earliest, but it’s already clear the costs could be astronomical, given the $1 billion price tag for the Kalamazoo River spill, which started in Marshall, Mich., near a creek shallow and narrow enough to walk across.
A 2015 pipeline report by a task force overseen by Attorney General Schuette revealed that at one point Enbridge acknowledged a wintertime Straits response could cost up to $900 million, roughly equal to the amount of insurance an Enbridge spokesman said the company holds for its entire pipeline network. Enbridge later said that was an overestimate, and that the actual cost would be about half that. Whatever the actual response price tag is, it is a figure that only covers the cost of trying to recapture the spilled oil.
“Notably, these estimates did not include any damages to persons, property, or natural resources for which Enbridge would be liable,” the pipeline report stated.
Michigan political leaders clearly recognized long ago that the Straits are a distinctly valuable economic and environmental resource; under terms of the 1953 easement with the State of Michigan, the pipeline owners were specifically required to carry an insurance policy just to cover spill costs in the Straits.
The state set the minimum value of that policy at $1 million.
The pressure to remove, replace or change the way the twin pipelines operate is coming from many levels of Michigan politics.
Grass-roots groups in northern Michigan continue their campaign to press local governments to pass resolutions opposing the pipeline. The state-commissioned studies evaluating the pipelines’ risk and alternative routes to carry the Mackinac oil are well underway. The National Wildlife Federation has filed a lawsuit to force a shutdown of the lines based on what it says is the federal government’s improper approval of a spill cleanup plan.
Pipelines are regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, though the State of Michigan also has authority over the Straits section because the state owns the lake bottom.
Enbridge has responded with its own campaign to convince the public of the safety and value of the line, which beyond moving crude oil also delivers about 65% of the propane used to heat homes in the Upper Peninsula.
Enbridge also notes that not all of the Canadian oil running through the Straits ends up back in Canada; the company reports about 30% of the crude it carries is refined by U.S. workers in the Detroit area. Enbridge also wants people to know that it has 250 employees and contractors in Michigan and that in recent years it has paid more than $22 million in property and sales taxes.
And Enbridge points out that pipelines, regardless of their history of chronic leaks, are still much safer than shipping oil on boats, rolling it on trains or putting it on trucks. The company says it would take some 668 loaded rail cars or more than 2,500 semis to match the daily capacity of the Mackinac lines.
This is a point that resonates with many people who live closest to the Mackinac Bridge — and the pipelines — who are growing weary of what they see as outside opposition based on emotion rather than facts.
“You want them taking it across the bridge in trucks?” asks St. Ignace City Manager Les Therrian, who has been critical of the anti-pipeline resolution campaign. “You want it in boats?”
He is pleased his own city council has so far declined to pass an anti-Mackinac Straits pipeline resolution, unlike Mackinaw City, on the other side of the Straits, and many counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Connie Litzner, mayor of St. Ignace, says it is not her job to be in the business of regulating pipelines or any other form of oil transport.
“Obviously we all know how devastating a break or leak would be,” she said. “We are all surrounded by water in one of the most beautiful places in the country. But from a political perspective, the federal government is supposed to be on top of this.
“I think we should let them do their job, and it is their job.”
Others in St. Ignace say it is mostly people in far-away cities who are pushing hard for a pipeline removal, and that these people would have a different opinion of the pipeline and its owner if they were aware how much maintenance and monitoring Enbridge staff do at the Straits.
“We’ve worked for Enbridge, and those people are A-1, as far as doing the job right. They’re right on top of everything,” said 69-year-old Larry Belonga, owner of Belonga Plumbing and Heating Inc. in St. Ignace.
He also wonders why anyone would think it is appropriate to pass the inherent risk of moving all the oil in Line 5 onto someone else.
“They say they could pipe this through Wisconsin,” he said. “Well, if they’re concerned about it leaving Michigan, why pass it onto Wisconsin?”
Chris Shepler, president of a Mackinac Island ferry line that bears his family name, says the difference is that Line 5 runs under the Great Lakes, a natural resource like none other on the planet — and through a place so well known that the bridge and Straits are on state license plates under the slogan Pure Michigan.
Shepler said he always knew the pipelines existed — his family used to sell postcards of their construction in the ferry gift shop — but he never really pondered their significance until the Kalamazoo disaster.
Now the third-generation ferry operator can’t stop thinking about the need to shut down the lines, even though he acknowledges Enbridge is working harder to keep a spill from happening.
“I know they’ve upped their game and I thank them for doing that, but there is going to be a time when that thing is not working anymore,” he said. “So do we wait to see something happen?”
Shepler knows he is in a precarious spot, criticizing a business that supplies a product that his own business cannot survive without.
“Our boats need diesel,” he said on a hot July afternoon, a time of year when his fleet may ferry 3,000 to 4,000 people out to Mackinac Island each day. “I know that, but I also know there are other ways to get that oil to refineries than going under the world’s largest freshwater basin.”
Dennis Mikus, a 58-year-old owner of a hardware store in Mackinaw City, on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge from St. Ignace, is less convinced than both plumber Belonga and ferry operator Shepler.
When asked what he thinks about the pipeline, Mikus reached into a garbage can next to his cash register and pulled out a stack of blue pamphlets opposing the pipelines. They were in his store because he took them from a friend as a favor, but after a few weeks of keeping them stashed under his cash register he decided to toss them.
“I don’t have Trump posters and I don’t have Hillary posters,” he said last summer. “I’m not in business to sell political viewpoints. I’m trying to sell hardware, but I do have mixed feelings about this.”
Mikus figures there needs to be an alternative to Line 5. Until he sees that plan, he’s not willing to say plug the pipeline.
“I’d rather see Pipeline 5 go away, “ he said, “but I also realize it can’t go away right now.”
His cashier Don Heukels was even more circumspect.
“I have no opinion,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t break."
Dan Egan is a reporter covering the Great Lakes. His reporting on invasive species and other issues has won numerous awards. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for explanatory reporting, in 2010 and 2013.