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A Win a Decade in the Making: Governor Whitmer Moves to Shut Down Line 5
Sitting in the open waters the Great Lakes, for over 4 miles, a nearly 70-year-old pipeline, called Line 5, pumps over 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids per day through the Straits of Mackinac. This waterway is the freshwater drinking source for millions, home to critical native wildlife habitat and the economic driver for the norther Michigan tourism economy. After a decade of seemingly insurmountable work to uncover Line 5 integrity details, today Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer fulfills her duty to protect the Great Lakes for all citizens by announcing the termination of Line 5’s easement due to the unacceptable risk this pipeline places on our shared waters and way-of-life.
This decision is not one that came easily or quickly and is a result of overwhelming evidence that Enbridge failed, time and time again, to operate Line 5 with due care.
My Line 5 journey actually started in 2010 when I heard about the Enbridge Line 6b oil spill in Marshall, Michigan, near my hometown, where over 1 million gallons of tar sands overtook 40 miles of the river system. The devastation Enbridge caused quite literally took my breath away– the communities surrounding the river were overwhelmed by the toxic smell of tar and chemicals in the air and the river ran black with oil. This was one of the worst inland oil spills in US history and our team at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center knew we had to do something to help the community and prevent this from ever happening again.
While most were focusing on the horrific BP disaster unfolding in the Gulf, I found myself spending most of my days and evenings back home, in-between Marshall or Battle Creek, Michigan, attending community meetings, hosting town halls, meeting with impacted citizens or elected officials and touring makeshift wildlife rehab centers.
At each of those meetings, I found myself standing next to friends and family as we worked together to sort through public resource needs, health impacts, wildlife response, accountability and transparency. The National Wildlife Federation understood the urgency and quickly pivoted my work to provide a watchdog role over Enbridge’s response. At that time I knew the work was critically important, but I had no idea what was in store for me in the years ahead.
Watching this spill unfold and seeing how much power Enbridge held, even as they destroyed the lives of so many, forever changed my path in life. I knew I had to do something to prevent this from ever happening again.
The Enbridge Line 6b disaster opened my eyes to how completely insufficient our state and federal oversight is over pipelines, including how much the oil industry has a strongarm on our decision makers with fancy PR campaigns and significant lobbying. We allow oil companies to operate pipelines until they fail and then grant them the run-of-show when disaster strikes. These companies then respond through the lens of their lawyers, with a keen eye on eliminating liability rather than taking responsibility. Enbridge, to this day, downplays the impact their disaster had on the communities I grew up in and ultimately the Line 6b disaster proved to be a cost of doing business for Enbridge, at the expense of people’s homes, their health, jobs, our natural resources and our wildlife.
A few months into that disaster we were blindsided by the revelation that Enbridge operates yet another massive oil pipeline in Michigan, called Line 5, which is not only 15 years older than Line 6b but it also crosses through the heart of the Great Lakes, at the Straits of Mackinac.
Not only that, but we learned about Line 5 because Enbridge was requesting approval from the federal oversight agency, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), to increase the speed and flow of oil through Line 5 with little verification of the 70-year old pipeline’s integrity.
The complete lack of appropriate oversight, all while Michigan is literally sucking oil out of the Kalamazoo River, launched our team into a fact-finding mission to uncover pipeline safety information about Line 5, including how it crosses this location, when it was last inspected, details on spill response plans and the types of products the line carries. All this basic integrity information we believe any citizen should have access to without hesitation—yet our Freedom of Information Requests (FOIAs) to PHMSA went largely unanswered.
After a year of being stonewalled, the National Wildlife Federation released the report Sunken Hazard, which chronicled what little information we could obtain about Line 5 and called on decision makers to require true transparency. At the time we had no idea this report would be the backbone of one of the most critical environmental issues facing our state, but we knew our efforts had to continue to ensure the Great Lakes are protected from what we were witnessing unfold in the Kalamazoo River.
Following the release of Sunken Hazard, and with little to no pipeline safety information being provided by Enbridge or oversight agencies, our team decided we needed eyes on the pipeline and hired a dive team, including a pipeline safety expert, to obtain the first publicly released images of Line 5. These images and videos, which showed a pipeline unsupported for large spans and covered in aquatic growth, finally caught the attention of state decision makers and the public in a significant way.
The National Wildlife Federation also partnered with the University of Michigan Water Center to study the currents in the Straits to demonstrate how a spill from Line 5 could travel throughout Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. These startling visuals, along with mounting public pressure for Line 5 to be shut down, forced then-Governor Snyder to developed an advisory board requiring the release of integrity information from Enbridge as well as evaluate risk and alternatives.
Since 2015, as the state advisory board—including the team’s very own Mike Shriberg–pushed Enbridge, Michiganders have witnessed a company that has tried desperately to withhold or downplay violations that clearly reveal that Line 5 is an urgent threat to our freshwater: Line 5’s protective coating continues to fail at alarming rates; Enbridge lacks proper insurance for a Line 5 spill; their inspections have failed to detect integrity issues; and Line 5 continues to sustain undetected damage from anchor strikes with Enbridge failing to operate the line with due care when this damage is discovered.
These violations, including Enbridge’s disclosure that Line 5 has sustained undetected damage due to two additional vessel strikes in less than a year, has shown Michiganders that the risk is too high and Line 5 has to be shut down immediately. These events were made worse when Enbridge refused to keep Line 5 shut down while they investigated the full extent of damages as well as their refusal to meet required insurance standards to cover the cost of a spill. It is clear that Enbridge is not only operating Line 5 with total disregard for the risk it poses to Michiganders, they are openly defying legal agreements to ensure accountability in the event of a disaster.
After years relentless work to uncover the realities surrounding Line 5, Governor Whitmer is acting to remove this oil pipeline due to uncurable easement violations from Enbridge, including their total failure to operate with due care. At the direction of the Governor, the Department of Natural Resources released a report that uncovers even more violations which now requires decisive and bold action to remove this nearly 70-year-old oil pipeline from the Great Lakes.
We thank Governor Whitmer for upholding her duty to protect the our most valuable asset and continuously providing brave and bold leader for our state.
This win for wildlife was a decade in the making and was supported by generous champions of wildlife like you. Help us continue to protect Great Lakes communities and wildlife.