How to avert a Great Lakes catastrophe

Candice Miller

The Great Lakes are one of our planet’s most valuable natural resources, providing drinking water to 40 million, generating tens of billions of dollars in economic activity annually and giving those of us lucky enough to live in Michigan an endless source of awe and inspiration.

A pair of 63-year-old underwater pipelines (collectively, Enbridge Line 5) spanning the Straits of Mackinac carry about 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid hydrocarbons a day.

The rupture of Line 5 at the straits would be an economic and environmental catastrophe.

Those are the facts. What we make of them is an open question. But they cannot be ignored.

As a lifelong resident of the Great Lakes state, I believe we have an obligation to do everything within our power to avert catastrophe.

That’s why I recently introduced in Congress the Great Lakes Pipeline Safety Act of 2016, requiring the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to commission studies on the impact of a pipeline spill in the straits, an assessment of spill response readiness and an evaluation of the condition and structural integrity of Line 5.

At the conclusion of the 18-month study period, federal officials would be required to certify the pipeline safe, or order its closure.

Some may regard this proposal as drastic.

Enbridge, the Canadian oil and gas transport company which owns Line 5, has said repeatedly its pipeline is sound and has been in service for decades without incident.

But the same could have been said for the company’s Line 6B, which in 2010 failed near Marshall, spilling over 1 million gallons of crude into the waterway and precipitating the most costly onshore oil-spill cleanup in U.S. history.

An analysis by the University of Michigan Water Center, released last month, found that, because of rapidly moving currents and sometimes hostile weather conditions, a rupture of Line 5 at the straits could contaminate 700 miles of Great Lakes coastline reaching as far away as Saginaw Bay.

I am far from alone in expressing concern about Line 5. Gov. Snyder’s Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board is set to commission studies of the condition of the pipeline and alternatives to oil transport across the straits.

The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure recently approved legislation which includes provisions I requested to designate the Great Lakes as an ecological resource, requiring pipelines in proximity to the lakes to undergo additional safety checks, and to mandate the owners of Great Lakes pipelines to prepare emergency response plans that account for dealing with the lakes (sometimes significant) ice coverage.

Those are necessary and commendable steps. But they are not sufficient.

We rely on affordable energy, much of it delivered through oil and gas pipelines, for comfort, convenience and prosperity. I am not convinced we are required to put the Great Lakes at risk to achieve it, which is why I introduced the Great Lakes Pipeline Safety Act of 2016.

In this instance, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Rep. Candice Miller represents Michigan’s 10th Congressional District and sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.