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Howes: Under the Mighty Mac, oil and water never mix

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Come Labor Day, Gov. Rick Snyder and thousands more are expected to walk across the Mackinac Bridge, high above the oil and natural gas coursing through Enbridge Line 5 on the bottom of the straits below.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, center, waves as he walks the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 during the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk in Mackinaw City, Mich.

The symbolism is hard to ignore: the Great Lakes State, endowed by Mother Nature with 20 percent of the world’s fresh water on its shores, owes much if its past economic century to fossil fuels and the millions of vehicles that burn them.

The real challenge facing both state officials and Enbridge Energy Partners LP is ensuring the two don’t mix, soon or ever. That’s why you could almost hear the panic reverberating from the governor’s statement this week in reaction to Enbridge confirming that it found at least two bare spots on the pipeline’s four-mile underwater span.

“Protection of Michigan’s natural resources is of utmost importance,” Snyder said, “and I am greatly concerned by the new information regarding Line 5. I have directed our departments to accelerate an aggressive review of Enbridge operations and maintenance procedures throughout the state.”

He’s right. The absolute last thing the water capital of the United States — already home to the embarrassment known as the Flint water crisis — can tolerate is another man-made disaster that fouls its fresh water, endangers residents and tarnishes further Michigan’s reputation as a responsible environmental steward.

Flint was bad enough. Bureaucratic incompetence at multiple levels of government culminated in foul, brown, lead-tainted water running from household taps. Its raised rashes, sickened children, sparked recriminations and undeniably damaged Snyder’s image as a competent technocrat.

It traumatized the state’s second largest minority-majority city, understandably leveling charges of environmental racism. It traumatized Michigan’s state and federal lawmakers. And it traumatized Snyder administration officials whose unanimous response to the Enbridge revelations amount to one, big collective pushback.

The director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality demanded “greater assurance” in the “integrity of all aspects” of Enbridge’s assessment and repairs “to protect the Great Lakes.”

The director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources needs assurance “that all appropriate risk mitigation measures” have been taken. “Until that happens,” Keith Creagh said in a joint statement, “we, as a state, will not be satisfied.”

The executive director of the Michigan Agency for Energy (incidentally, a former lawyer in the governor’s office during the unfolding Flint crisis) was more direct: “Human error was a major factor in Enbridge’s spill into the Kalamazoo River. These coating gaps point to other areas where human error, not the environment, are creating problems.”

And Attorney General Bill Schuette, an all-but-certain GOP candidate for governor next year, reiterated his call to develop a timeline for closing the Enbridge pipeline and replacing it with a more modern structure that could be more transparently regulated.

Accidentally pumping crude oil into the Straits of Mackinac from a line first laid in 1953 — four years before the “Mighty Mac” bridge opened to traffic — would catastrophic. Environmentally, for everyone. Financially, for Enbridge and taxpayers. And politically, for state officials expected to closely monitor private business operating in public waters.

“There is no safety or integrity issue with the pipe, no damage to the pipe itself,” Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesman, told NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Frank Beckmann. “But we are taking it very seriously. We plan to go ahead and make repairs just as soon as the inspection work is done. We see there is no corrosion at all in those areas or along Line 5 in the straits.”

Those assurances are not likely to mollify Line 5’s critics, who say its threat to the Great Lakes extends far beyond its span crossing the straits. Trouble is, the critics must reckon with the modern world as it is, not as they want it to be.

Namely, fossil fuels power the contemporary economy. They generate the power to heat and cool; drive cars and SUVs, most buses and tractor-trailers, planes and commercial shipping. They’re increasingly even the replacement for the coal-fired plants — natural gas — that large power producers are moving to retire.

And they’re not going away anytime soon. That’s why the likes of Enbridge and state officials have a responsibility to ensure their mutual assurances are real: the stakes of an accident are too high.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.