California oil spill stokes concern for Great Lakes

Michigan

In June 2020, file photo, a television screen provided by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy shows damage to anchor support EP-17-1 on the east leg of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline within the Straits of Mackinac in Mich. (Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy via AP, File)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The California oil spill that has contaminated miles of coastline is renewing concerns about the potential of an oil leak from Line 5, which runs under the Straits of Mackinac.

An anchor strike is suspected to have caused the spill in California and the pipeline through the straits has dealt with an anchor strike before in 2018.

Daniel Macfarlane, an associate professor at Western Michigan University’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, fears it could happen again.

“An anchor strike is not just a risk, it’s already happened so it’s probably more a matter of time,” Macfarlane said.

Enbridge, a Canadian company, also owns the pipeline that spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The disaster was the second biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

“With Line 6B in the Kalamazoo River, that was over a million gallons and took Enbridge close to a day to discover it even had a spill,” Macfarlane said.

Enbridge has disputed that estimate and has previously stated the amount was significantly less. 

Line 5 is much older than the California pipeline and Macfarlane says a major spill there would be even more catastrophic.

Macfarlane, who is Canadian, says the pipeline provides very little energy to Michigan and little economic benefit.

“It’s essentially just moving fossil fuels from Canada to another part of Canada with Michigan bearing the risk,” Macfarlane said.

Enbridge says it safely provides energy through the pipeline to the two most populated provinces in Canada, along with Michigan and neighboring states.

Macfarlane says the location of the pipeline would mean an oil spill would quickly flow in multiple directions.

“A University of Michigan study a few years ago said up to 700 miles of coastline could be impacted by an oil spill from Line 5,” Macfarlane said.

The company wants to build a tunnel to house the pipeline which would better protect it from anchor strikes.

A lawsuit challenging a 2018 decision to create a Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority that would enter into a tunnel agreement was upheld by the appeals court.

The second lawsuit brought by Attorney General Dana Nessel is seeking to void an easement where the pipe was built and remains in litigation.

Enbridge provided the following statement on concerns about Line 5:

The annual risk of a vessel’s anchor causing a release on the Line 5 Pipelines is extremely small, and has been made even smaller through implementation of our safety measures. Enbridge’s Coordinated System, as implemented 24 hours per day by the Enbridge Straits Maritime Operations Center (ESMOC) in Mackinaw City, relies on multiple, interwoven activities:

  • experienced maritime operators observe vessels well before they transit over the Dual Pipelines to identify the deployment status of their anchors;
  • all observed vessels are hailed via radio to ask captains to confirm the vessel’s anchors are secured;
  • electronic messages are transmitted automatically to inform vessels of the presence of the Line 5 Dual Pipelines and that they are entering a no-anchor zone regulated by the US Coast Guard;
  • cameras positioned around the Straits monitor ship traffic to identify anchor strike risks from vessels operating in proximity to the Pipelines; and
  •  the shutdown of the Line 5 Dual Pipelines is directed if an anchor strike risk has been identified that cannot be resolved.  
  • The Coordinated System ensures that the thick-walled Line 5 Dual Pipelines, which have been operating safely for more than 65 years without any product released into the Straits, will continue to operate safely, significantly protected from the risk of vessel anchor strikes until the tunnel project construction is complete. 
  • Enbridge is committed to keeping the community and the Straits safe while providing essential transportation fuel and propane to Michigan and the region.
  • Any remaining risk of a vessel’s anchor striking the Line 5 Dual Pipelines – which is extremely remote in light of our safety measures – would be permanently eliminated by Enbridge’s construction of a tunnel beneath the Straits which Enbridge is committed to pursuing.  Enbridge continues to devote significant resources to securing the permits needed for the tunnel so that construction can commence as soon as possible. 

**Editor’s note: A reference to a 2020 anchor strike made by the professor has been removed. The professor misspoke and meant to refer solely to the 2018 incident.**

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