Column: A cautionary tale for Line 5

Katie Parrish
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I spent the summer of 2010 on Florida’s Gulf Coast nervously awaiting the arrival of tarballs on the sandy white beaches of my hometown. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded earlier that summer, killing 11 people and spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, uncontrolled, for 87 days.

I remember the feeling of powerlessness watching the 24/7 live feed of the gushing wellhead, wondering when it would stop and whether my community would be doused in a suffocating blanket of crude oil. I was stunned and outraged as BP’s engineers employed the “junk shot” option — a futile attempt to clog the well with literal garbage — and wondered, “Why don’t they have a real plan?”

The spill changed everything. Conversations around town were dominated by anxious unknowing: Will tourists visit this year? What businesses will make it through? If it gets bad enough will we need to move? I remember Googling companies that would let me don a hazmat suit so I could help, in whatever small way, to get us back to a sense of normalcy.

That summer I learned there’s no good way to clean up an oil spill, even in the tame, ice-free waters of the Gulf. Our options were to set the sheen on fire and burn it away, or dump a toxic chemical dispersant on it. BP chose dispersant, which didn’t remove any oil from the Gulf, but instead dissolved the surface oil into microscopic pieces that quickly spread through the entire water column, into wildlife, and ultimately into all of us who continued to swim, fish and enjoy our treasured waters.

Thankfully my hometown dodged the worst of the spill, but the event shook the entire state. The groundswell of public outrage has kept new oil rigs off Florida’s coasts, but it shouldn’t take a man-made disaster to convince our elected leaders to act.

I’ve since traded my pleasant peninsula for its northerly neighbor, and upon arriving in Michigan I’ve watched the unfolding saga of Line 5 with an eerie unease.

Just last week Enbridge required federal intervention to stop pumping oil through Line 5 after an anchor dented the pipeline and hazardous weather brought 12 foot waves that would make any containment or cleanup efforts nearly impossible.

But it’s more than last week’s events. Enbridge has repeatedly mislead state officials on the condition of the pipeline, issuing near-immediate assurances that coating gaps, dents and other deformities are no cause for concern. But the pipeline is 15 years past its 50-year lifespan, and we all know nothing lasts forever.

The present status quo feels all too similar to what we saw in the Gulf — damaged equipment, weak and inadequate oversight, and concerted public relations efforts designed to mask the true risk led by a company that skirts safety protocols in the interest of their bottom line. It’s a proven recipe for disaster.

What’s most concerning is that Michigan’s elected leaders seem all too willing to oblige Enbridge’s wishes and put our treasured Great Lakes at risk. Oil spills are disasters, but they are also entirely preventable.

Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette both have the power to revoke the easement that allows Enbridge to operate their aging pipeline in the Great Lakes — and yet, they don’t.

It’s time we elect state leaders who will and this November is our opportunity. What the Gulf community went through is a nightmare no other community should have to face.

Katie Parrish is communications director at Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

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