The wind had begun to pick up as my cousin and I made our way across the five-mile expanse of the Mackinaw Bridge this past July. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we headed north, the deep blue waters of Lake Michigan and Huron churning below us as we drove.

The Great Lakes, carved and shaped by the glacial retreat of the last ice age, are the second-largest — polar ice caps are the first — source of freshwater in the world. They contain roughly 84 percent of North America’s fresh water and 21 percent of the freshwater for the entire planet. The Great Lakes Basin is an ecological system like none other on this earth, one characterized not only by a unique environmental legacy, but also by the human culture that has formed around them for thousands of years.

Yet, as I drove across the bridge that day in July, I wasn’t thinking only about the complex history, beauty and legacy of the Great Lakes: I was also thinking of the lurking danger that lies beneath them — an environmental disaster in waiting, one often associated with the catastrophic destruction of aquatic ecosystems from the Gulf of Mexico to the beaches of Alaska.

You probably already guessed it: Oil — hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. For instance, did you know there’s an oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinaw? I didn’t, and the more digging I did, the more fearful I became of the dangers that this particular pipeline poses to the Great Lakes.

The question is not if it will ever rapture and spill heavy crude into the lakes. It’s when.

Before you call me a pessimist you should understand a few things that I didn’t know until recently. The pipeline under the straits is owned and operated by a company called Enbridge. Heard of them? On July 26, 2010, one of Enbridge’s pipelines, known as 6B, ruptured in Marshall, Mich., spilling — on Enbridge’s estimate — 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo river. It was the largest inland oil spill in the history of the United States. It is estimated that Enbridge has yet to clean 180,000 gallons of oil that still remain in the Kalamazoo River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that even after such a cleanup, somewhere between 162,000 to 168,000 gallons of oil will remain in the river, polluting the water and surrounding land.

Enbridge’s line under the Straits is old, too, hidden beneath the waves since 1952, five years before the Mackinaw Bridge opened to traffic in 1957. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to the Great Lakes or seen them in action, but they’re massive bodies of water that operate under intense force and pressure from storm patterns, currents, and freezing and thawing in the winter and spring. All of these factors help weaken and degrade such pipelines over such a long amount of time.

Yet, despite the concern over Enbridge as a company or the age and integrity of the line, there’s a more urgent and pressing need to call attention to the Straits Pipeline now: Enbridge plans to expand the pipeline’s capacity, transporting a great amount of crude beneath the lakes in the form of tar sands oil — some of the heaviest, dirtiest, densest crude there is.

While tar sands has, until recently, been treated like any other type of oil that we transport through pipelines across the United States, the EPA has begun arguing that standards for tar sands oil transportation should be changed. Why? Because it was tar sands oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, and the EPA has come to realize following the disaster that cleaning up tar sands is, well, almost impossible.

So on July 14, as my cousin and I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge into the Upper Peninsula, we headed toward St. Ignace. We met up with protestors led by Bill McKibbon and 350.org, an environmental coalition working to build bridges between grassroots environmental campaigns all over the world. We sat on the grass with more than a hundred others, listening to stories about Enbridge and oil spills, ecology and community. We went because Michigan is our home, and Michigan has been shaped, defined and identified by the water that surrounds us. The Great Lakes are ours to protect and defend. They are precious, and we have the power — and the need — to fight for them.

Kate Laramie can be reached at laramiek@umich.edu.

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