Political Focus: Line 5 and big oil’s grasp on the Great Lakes

Ben Hume, Staff Reporter

In recent weeks, Michigan residents may have started to hear rumblings of a certain “Line 5” oil pipeline and its parent company, Embridge. For those with astute memory, this name should ring a bell, because this company is the very same one responsible for Line 6B and the largest land-based oil spill in United States history, the one that occurred in Kalamazoo. So if you’re becoming slightly concerned that this same company is showing up in your local newspapers again, you are certainly not alone. While they haven’t been responsible for any more major ecological disasters, the state of Michigan is concerned they might not be far off. Michigan has a long and unpleasant history with Embridge going all the way back to 1953, and this unpleasant history is uncomfortably close to repeating itself.

Line 5 is owned by Embridge, a Canadian company who uses the Upper Peninsula and the Great Lakes as a shortcut to connect western Canada and Sarnia, a city in Ontario with a large number of refineries. Line 5 was built when the president of the U.S. was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and since its installation it has undergone only partial repairs and maintenance. Here are a few of the many rather important repairs that have drawn attention to this ancient piece of infrastructure.

A large shipping barge hit one of the two side-by-side pipes, only exposing some power wires and spilling 500 gallons of coolant. During this incident, Line 5 was hit and dented by an anchor. Embridge told Lansing that the situation was contained and under control. Turns out Embridge did not, in fact, have everything under control.

Through the straits of Mackinac, Line 5 went unsecured to the lake bed for much of its life. Only in 2006 and in 2010 were support anchors added to the pipeline to keep it secured. But in their inspection, the state of Michigan found that a critical protective coating was sheared off during those installations and was never replaced. This coating is integral to the safety of the pipeline and was overlooked. But that is not the worst of it, because it took Embridge three whole years to tell the state of Michigan about this particular problem. Embridge knew about the problem in 2014, and it took a separate investigation by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to reveal the breaches in safety. That’s three years of unprotected wear and tear on exposed steel piping. And if you needed any more reason to hate this company’s practices, here’s what’s at stake if the straits were to experience a spill:

Fifty miles of Michigan shoreline. In tandem with the University of Michigan Water Center, the National Wildlife Federation released a simulation of what would happen at multiple depths and times of the year if there were to be an oil leak of any sizeable amount. Their simulations can be found on YouTube, but here’s a quick summary from the researcher who made the animation: “If you were to pick the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes, this would be it.”

The cleanup from the Kalamazoo spill totaled nearly one billion dollars, and the fines for negligence added another $180 million. It took four years to clean up. The straits are invaluable to Michigan ecosystems, and it’s about time Embridge and other big companies pay for unlawful and dishonest company practices.