Protesters call for shutdown of Enbridge's Line 5 as Biden tours GM plant

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Protesters lined the street where President Joe Biden would pass on his way to tour the GM assembly plant, hoping he would hear their calls to shut down the controversial Enbridge oil pipelines.

With slogans like "Enbridge kills" and "Let's not trash our home," dozens of organizers with the Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition gathered on Edsel Ford Service Drive, across from the newly renamed General Motors Factory ZERO Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, an electric vehicle plant that straddles both cities. Demonstrators were protesting Line 5, Enbridge Energy's 68-year-old pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. 

Detroit police officers stand in front of protestors near the intersection of Chene and the Edsel Ford service drive on Wednesday, where members of Oil & Water Don't Mix and others protest Enbridge's twin Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac before President Joe Biden toured the GM Factory ZERO in Detroit.

Biden toured the plant Wednesday, touting his $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure bill and the importance of more spending to accelerate EV adoption.

Protesters said they feared the damage a rupture in the decades-old pipelines would cause to residents' health, arguing it would pollute drinking and swimming water and damage the Great Lakes. 

"They put the pipe in in the '50s and it's been falling apart ever since then," said Wendy Case, 58, of West Bloomfield. "A line break ... would be devastating to both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, and just an environmental travesty." 

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the pipeline in the Straits operates safely and said the company spends millions each year on upkeep.

"There are millions of people and thousands of businesses on both sides of the border who are dependent on Line 5 to provide the fuel they need for heating, manufacturing, airplanes, roads and automobiles," said Duffy. "Line 5 is vital energy infrastructure on a daily basis to Michigan, other states in the region, and Canada’s two largest provinces."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November 2020 revoked Enbridge's easement in the Straits  and ordered the pipelines shut down by May of this year. 

"A line break ... would be devastating to both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, and just an environmental travesty," said protestor Wendy Case of West Bloomfield.

The Canadian company, backed by Canada's government, refused to comply without a court order. In October, the Canadian government formally invoked a 1977 treaty that officials said prevents the U.S. government or Michigan from disrupting the operation of the pipeline, pulling the Biden administration into the dispute over the pipeline's future. 

Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet Thursday at the White House, where the pipeline is expected to be discussed.

The protest came the day after a judge denied Michigan's request to move its lawsuit seeking the closure of the pipeline from federal court back to state court, where it might have had better chances with a county judge.

"There's absolutely no control over the corporations or any effort to make them responsible," said Lon Herman, 73, of Ferndale. "We just need (Biden) to truly be the environmental president he claims he wants to be." 

PETA member Sarah Terrien of Hamtramck wears an inflatable dinosaur during the protest Wednesday.

Duffy pointed to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, established three years ago after votes in both houses in the Michigan legislature, to oversee the construction of a Great Lakes Tunnel that he said would contain Line 5 well below the Straits. 

"This makes a safe pipeline safer and virtually eliminates the chance of an anchor strike or spill. The Tunnel would have no emissions and could also serve to house important services like highspeed internet and improve 911 connections and reliability," said Duffy. "The Tunnel is a win-win for Michigan." 

Line 5 has been a concern of environmental advocates for years because of its age and vulnerability to elements such as anchor strikes or water conditions. 

"The currents in the Straits go into both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, so (it) would be probably the worst place in the entire Great Lakes to have an oil spill." said Ross Fisher, 29, an organizer with the coalition. "And it's just too much of a risk at this point." 

A tunnel agreement between Enbridge and the state of Michigan in late 2018 requires the company to build an estimated $500 million tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to house a new segment of Line 5, a task that likely won't be completed until 2028. 

The proposed tunnel would be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, the  coalition claims. 

Fisher and other protesters pointed to Enbridge's involvement in one of the worst inland spills in U.S. history. In 2010, when more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into a creek that flowed into the Kalamazoo River and fouled nearly 40 miles of the waterway. 

The spill resulted in a $177 million fine from federal officials and a $75 million settlement with the state of Michigan.