Protesters call on Canadian officials to stop backing Line 5

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Environmentalists opposed to Line 5 held a protest Wednesday here in a bid to put pressure on Canadian officials to stop supporting the owner of the controversial oil pipeline in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.

The environmental groups want Line 5 owner Enbridge of Canada to give up its federal court fight to stop Michigan officials from decommissioning the pipeline. The administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Enbridge have been meeting since April with their mediator, former Detroit U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen.

“Unfortunately, right now across the river here, the Canadian government is not doing their duty to protect the Great Lakes,” said Sean McBrearty, the Michigan legislative and policy director of Clean Water Action. “They are instead propping up Enbridge in their effort to keep Line 5 operating illegally.”

Mary Schihl, 76, left, of Clinton Township and Eileen Perkins, 78, of Clinton Township, protested in Detroit Wednesday in support of the shutdown of the Line 5 oil pipeline in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.

The protest was held Wednesday along the Detroit River across from Windsor, Canada. In March, a cabinet member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration vowed the continued operation of the pipeline is "non-negotiable."

Whitmer had ordered Line 5 closed by mid-May given the potential of an oil leak that environmentalists and others like Native American tribes say would be catastrophic to the Great Lakes for decades.

Enbridge has argued it cured whatever violations cropped up during the lifetime of the pipeline. The company refused to close the line absent a court order and filed suit in federal district court, where the Canadian oil giant argued federal regulators, not state officials, had the final say over the operation of the line.

Enbridge is in the early stages of building a tunnel to house the pipeline under the Straits, which is also opposed by environmental groups and Native tribes as a potential hazard. "This tunnel will make a safe pipeline even safer," Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said Wednesday.

Line 5 should stay open because it "is a critical piece of North American energy infrastructure that benefits both Canada and the U.S.," Duffy said.

"We appreciate the efforts of Canadian governments to advocate for the continued safe operation of Line 5, a vital energy lifeline to both Canada and the U.S. What Line 5 supplies to Ontario and Quebec is critical for the economy and thousands of products Canadians rely on every day. It also supplies Great Lakes region States with essential energy."

Oil and gas companies along with other business interests have lobbied Whitmer hard to back off on closing Line 5, saying any shutdown would hike oil and gas prices for average residents and result in propane shortages.

The protest with about 30 people on the riverwalk of the Detroit River came in connection with demonstrations in Chicago, Milwaukee and Windsor by environmental groups.

Eileen Perkins, 78, of Clinton Township, joined her sister Mary Joan Schihl, 76, also of Clinton Township, to protest Line 5. Both held placards up about an issue they only recently learned about.

“It’s kinda new to me, but I know that we’re concerned about the water and keeping it clear and clean and good for the future,” Perkins said.

Schihl said that the age of the 68-year-old pipeline worries her. It was built in 1953, a date environmental groups claim has gone far beyond what is safe while Enbridge dispute the claim.

“My concerns are one little spill could ruin all of the Great Lakes," she said.

A worst-case scenario spill from the Enbridge Energy Line 5 pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac would affect more than 400 miles of shoreline in Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada, according to a state-ordered risk analysis released in 2018. Such a spill would release 32,000 to 58,000 barrels of crude oil into the Great Lakes and put 47 wildlife species and 60,000 acres of habitat at risk, according to Michigan Technological University researchers.

McBrearty said he hopes the Canadian people step up to better understand what’s at stake.

Sean McBrearty, coordinator of the Michigan-based Clean Water Action, led a Wednesday protest in Detroit that asked Canadian officials and others to stop supporting Enbridge's federal legal efforts to keep operating Line 5.

“We don’t think that the Canadian people would take it laying down if a U.S. corporation went over into Canada and was behaving illegally and putting their water at risk,” he said. “And we’d like a he same courtesy from the Canadian government.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com