By Noah Poppe
Oil pipelines have been a major concern in modern times, especially when it comes to the safety of bodies of water. One that many might not be aware of is the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that runs almost 1100 miles from here in Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. This pipeline was installed 64 years ago, and it can transport nearly 23 million gallons of oil per day according to an Enbridge brochure about line 5. A particular point of risk in this pipeline is when it crosses the Straits of Mackinaw, the point where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Here at this 5-mile wide point is a disaster waiting to happen in one of the worst places possible in the great lakes.
The age of the pipeline itself is a major cause for concern. Per the original easement in 1953 with the state of Michigan, there shall be no span of pipeline greater than 75 feet can be unsupported. The strength of the current has eroded and shifted sediment along the lakebed. This has created spans of unsupported pipeline along the lakebed. Enbridge has installed 124 steel anchor supports since 2002 according to an Enbridge brief, and it is likely they will need to install more in the future.
Another concern is the recent increase in oil flow. In 2013, Enbridge upgraded pumping stations along line 5, costing an estimated $100 million. This upgrade increased the volume of oil pushed through the pipeline by 50,000 barrels, which increases the pressure on the pipe. The fact that Enbridge did not replace or upgrade the pipes themselves in anyway, is troubling.
Enbridge’s website has assurances that the pipeline was built with extraordinary standards and will continue to stand the test of time. However, Enbridge lines have spilled before. In 1999, near Crystal Falls, Michigan, a spill of over 222,000 gallons occurred. It happened again near Cohasset, Minnesota in 2002, with approximately 252,000 gallons of oil spilled. And the worst spill, in July 2010, over 800,000 gallons of oil spilled into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. The Kalamazoo spill remains one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.
Additionally, the Straits of Mackinaw has powerful currents that change direction frequently. This is according to Jim Erickson, a University of Michigan researcher. Erickson also claims that because of this, the Straits of Mackinaw would be one of the worst places for an oil spill to happen.
A potential alternative to a pipeline would be shipping oil by train. The great lakes, nor any water source would be at risk. Also, railroads are an energy efficient form of transport, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The shutdown and removal of the pipeline is a straightforward step that should be taken, unless we wish to continue putting the great lakes at risk.