Michigan has a duty to prevent a Great Lakes oil spill

Liz Kirkwood

Two 62-year-old pipelines lie on the bed of Lake Michigan, transporting nearly 23 million gallons of oil across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac every day. Nothing lasts forever, including steel oil pipelines lying underwater since 1953 in “the worst possible place” in the Great Lakes for an oil spill, according to University of Michigan researchers.

At the heart of this story is pure Michigan law, the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, which requires the state to act as trustee and protect our public trust bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes from pollution, harm, and destruction. The state’s duty becomes urgent where, as in the case of an oil spill from these “Line 5” pipelines, the magnitude of harm could be so catastrophic. A 2014 UM study showed that a million gallon Straits oil spill could engulf Mackinac Island and potentially spread 85 miles from Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island to Lake Huron’s Rogers City.

When our organization, For Love of Water, and our partners at the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, testified before Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force in December, we asked the state to apply this law’s open public process to Line 5 and to review risks and consider alternatives protective of our public waters, home to 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

Snyder’s closed-door task force will issue safety recommendations soon regarding the Straits oil pipelines, owned by Canadian energy-transport giant Enbridge, and petroleum pipelines elsewhere in Michigan. Business owners, mayors, tribal leaders, environmental groups, and citizens by the thousands have called on Snyder to keep oil out of the Great Lakes.

Recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Montana’s then-frozen Yellowstone River, and the waters off Santa Barbara, California show how devastating an oil spill would be for the waters, wildlife, businesses, and communities of the Great Lakes in summer or winter. These disasters also challenge pipeline companies’ conclusions and assurances to the government about “extremely unlikely” spill risks, safe operation, and state-of-the-art rigorous monitoring.

In reality, the annual number of significant pipeline accidents nationally has increased by almost 60 percent since 2009, as North American oil production has soared. Nearly two-thirds of the leaks during that time have been linked to corrosion or material, welding, and equipment failures – problems often associated with older pipelines.

In April, we issued an expert report to the governor’s task force that raised related concerns about corrosion, obsolete materials, end-of-life plans, and worst-case spill scenarios. Among our findings were that Line 5’s welds and coatings are outdated, that required pipeline supports are missing, and that zebra and quagga mussels may have significantly corroded the steel – all of which suggest a dangerously weakened pipeline. In light of these alarming new facts, coupled with Enbridge’s 2010 leak of one million gallons of heavy tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed, we called for the oil pipelines running through the Mackinac Straits to be shut down pending a full public review.

The state, meanwhile, has a legal duty to protect the Great Lakes. And we, the citizens of Michigan and the United States, have a right to demand that it do so. We should not gamble the health of the Great Lakes and the Straits-area economy on weak assurances from a company with a troubling track record that its 1950s technology will last forever.

Liz Kirkwood is executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW), a Great Lakes water policy center.