Pipeline break could have detrimental impacts on Great Lakes, study shows

Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 11:48am

A break in the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline — a 63-year-old pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac and carries up to 23 million gallons of light crude oil and natural gas per day — could potentially spill into 720 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, according to a University of Michigan study released Thursday.

Researchers created a model to demonstrate 840 possible simulations of an oil spill by the pipeline and outlines of where the oil could go. Based on the model, up to 720 miles of coastline could be affected by a spill and require extensive cleanup.

David Schwab, a research scientist for the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute and designer of the simulation, said due to the strong, rapidly changing currents in the Great Lakes, it would be difficult to predict how and where the oil would be distributed to. However, Schwab noted the spread would be vast and disastrous.

“This is possibly the worst place in the Great Lakes in terms of how fast and how far something would spread,” he said. “If there were a spill it would be really hard to predict where that oil would end up.”


Schwab’s research in Thursday's study goes into detail about the movement of the oil and the extent to which shorelines could be damaged. Based on the model, nearly 60 percent of Lake Huron's open water and more than 15 percent of Lake Michigan's open water could have visible oil in the event of a spill.

The effects an oil spill would have on surrounding ecosystems were beyond the scope of the study, but Schwab said in a press release prior to this study that the potential effects of an oil spill in the area were largely unknown, this model shows the extent of the possible impact.

“Until now, no one knew exactly how much shoreline was vulnerable to spills in the Straits of Mackinac,” he said in the release. “These findings show that under the right conditions, a spill in the Straits of Mackinac could affect a significant amount of shoreline and open-water areas in either Lake Michigan or Lake Huron, or both, very quickly.”

Enbridge Line 5 and the danger of a potential spill has been a matter of concern for the public over the past years, including on campus. Earlier this month, the University’s chapter of College Democrats hosted a discussion on water issues in the state, which highlighted the pipeline as a threat.

LSA junior Taiwo Dosunmu, communications director for College Democrats, said the state government needs to take the potential danger of the pipeline seriously because of the catastrophic outcome of a spill.

“Because of its location in the Straits of Mackinac, the potential damage from a spill there is unimaginable,” he said. “As Democrats, we believe the Great Lakes must be protected as some of the greatest natural resources our state and our nation possesses. The environmental and economic consequences of a break in Line 5 cannot be taken lightly, especially given the current administration's revealed inability to properly respond to water crises.”

Protesters also gathered outside of last year’s Mackinac Policy Conference to raise awareness for the issue, hoping to influence policy makers to further regulate or shut down the pipeline.

Mariah Urueta, Michigan organizer for Food & Water Watch — one of the groups that organized the protest at the conference— said she hopes to see the pipeline shut down because of its threat to the Great Lakes.

“Pipeline 5 should be permanently decommissioned,” she said. “We do not believe that any oil at all should be flowing through the Great Lakes. It poses unnecessary risks to our Great Lakes.”

According to Urueta, the majority of the oil flowing through the pipeline is not consumed by Michigan residents, and is instead transported through to Canada. The group also has concerns regarding Enbridge’s ability to react to a breakage in the pipeline, claiming it could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days for the proper response team to be organized.

Activists also note that Enbridge Energy does not have the best track record for maintaining pipelines. In July 2010, a different pipeline owned by Enbridge experienced a large-scale spill affecting 35 square miles of the Kalamazoo River — the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. In 2013, the National Wildlife Federation revealed Enbridge was not following the safety guidelines they agreed to when a diver discovered Enbridge Line 5 was lacking many necessary supports.

Ryan Duffy, supervisor of regional communications and media relations for Enbridge, said the company constantly monitors the pipeline and would be able to shut off the pipeline within three minutes of a detected breakage.

Additionally, Duffy said the pipeline was built to the highest standards and does not anticipate any issues moving forward. He said Enbridge has emergency protocols, like emergency response drills and sending devices inside to look for testing in case an accident does happen.

“Our most important concern is safety; that’s why we do constant testing on the pipe,” he said. “But there is just no reason to make any changes. The pipe is in excellent condition.”

Despite these assurances by Enbridge, along with protesters, members of the legislature have pushed for further action on the issue. Last October, Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) submitted a resolution calling upon Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to exercise their right to terminate the state’s contract with Enbridge and shut down the pipeline.

Last week, Schuette submitted a request, along with other members of the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board for Enbridge, to release more data concerning Pipeline 5’s integrity and inspection policies. According to a press release, the current read-only form of the data severely limits the usefulness of the provided documents, preventing the state from properly analyzing risk.

Under the initial 1953 agreement between Lakehead Pipeline Company — later purchased by Enbridge — and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, there is a termination clause allowing the state to revoke its agreement under certain conditions, including if the pipeline is not operated under the best practices.

The resolution provides several reasons why the termination clause should be invoked, such as high water pressure on the pipeline and its age.

Irwin said though Enbridge Line 5 may not fail, the potential harm it could cause is too great to risk.

“The likelihood of the problem is probably relatively small,” he said. “But the magnitude of the harm would be tremendous. The concern if there is a mistake — like there was in Kalamazoo — the magnitude of the harm is enormous and the ability of Enbridge to fix it is not there.”

Schwab said he hopes the new research will impact future policy on the state level to address the pipeline.

“We hope this information will inform spill-response planning and will help government officials make sound decisions about the oil pipeline beneath the straits," he said.