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Opinion: Kalamazoo oil spill 10 years ago taught Enbridge nothing

Liz Kirkwood

Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of Enbridge’s spilling almost a million gallons of heavy tar-sands oil into the Kalamazoo River from its 41-year-old Line 6B — causing one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history.

The July 25, 2010, disaster awoke Michigan from its complacency by revealing an even older and more dangerous set of oil pipelines lurking in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac — Enbridge Line 5. Today the overwhelming consensus across party lines is that Enbridge’s 67-year-old Line 5 threatens Michigan resident's drinking water, economy and our way of life.

Now Enbridge is touting its proposed oil pipeline tunnel under the Great Lakes as a quick-and-simple fix to Line 5. The Canadian oil transporter knows the permitting process and legal challenges thereafter could take another decade to navigate, with no guarantee that an oil tunnel could ever satisfy environmental standards designed to protect the Great Lakes, including the requirement to prove that there’s no better alternative for Michigan.

Crews clean up oil on the Kalamazoo River on July 30, 2010.

And that timeline ignores whether Enbridge can even finance a project that is likely to far exceed Enbridge’s current $500 million estimate. What Enbridge might gain from its oil pipeline tunnel proposal, however, is time to keep profiting from the high-stakes transport of oil through the Straits via a series of 2018 agreements with the state that may violate public trust law.

Media reports have shown that Enbridge violated of its easement agreement with the state for years. Line 5 has been struck in recent years by vessel anchors and/or cable lines, damaging the pipeline coating and anchor supports. Last month’s discovery of such damage triggered the temporary court-ordered shutdown of the flow of oil in Line 5; Enbridge suspects one of its own contracted vessels may have caused this incident.

For Enbridge, ignoring safety requirements and racking up violations is just the cost of doing business (e.g., see its $6.7 million fine in 2020 and $1.8 million fine in 2018). The company’s troubling track record includes 33 documented spills from Line 5. Enbridge also deceived state and federal regulators about Line 5’s damaged condition when it knew about numerous missing anchor supports and failed to disclose it until 2017, and hid its knowledge for three years of bare spots in the pipeline’s protective coating.

Enbridge routinely stirs up fears that Michigan’s economy will decline if Line 5 is shut down. But Michigan’s economy — especially tourism —would be hollowed out by a Line 5 rupture that would close the Straits, likely cut off drinking water for several communities, potentially foul up to 700 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and deliver as much as a $6 billion economic blow to the state, according to an economic study commissioned by my organization. Other better energy transport options are far less risky.

Enbridge’s latest refusal to sign a written indemnity and insurance guarantee in the event of a Line 5 breach would leave Michigan taxpayers and property owners on the hook when Line 5 ruptures.  

The voluminous and damning body of evidence documenting Enbridge’s Line 5 risky operation makes it abundantly clear that it’s high time to shut down Line 5 in our Great Lakes.

Liz Kirkwood is the executive director for For Love of Water (FLOW).