Two oil and gas pipelines run along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac and have for 63 years. Is Line 5 an environmental time bomb or a generally safe but necessary risk of our petroleum-based economy?

The notion of “lake” implies something contained, a pretty but generally still body of water that has no place to go, or at least no place to go quickly. Sure, in big wind a lake gets dynamic, gets choppy, gets wavy, but the effect is akin to splashing in a pool, not turbulence born of current. So when travelers drive across the Mackinac Bridge on a gorgeous, windless, summer day and gaze across a flat Lake Michigan to the west and a flat Lake Huron to the east, it’s understandable they’d think, Oh, what a lovely and placid place are these Straits!

And this thought would be completely wrong. To understand the Mackinac Straits you must, in fact, forget every perception you have of “lake” as a neatly enclosed entity. Dr. David Schwab has spent over 40 years studying wind, current, water levels and waves on the Great Lakes, and even he was stunned when he finally had the opportunity to study the waterway in-depth and came to comprehend how the water behaves there. Schwab, who retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in 2012 led the development of the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System while he was there. “When you hear those radio forecasts of waves three to four feet on Lake Michigan, that is our forecast, our system,” he says.

In 2014, while working for the Graham Sustainability Institute at University of Michigan, Schwab was able to study how oil from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline—which is permitted to push 21.6 million gallons of oil a day through two 63-year-old pipes on the lake bottom of the Straits—would disperse if the pipeline ruptured. The Enbridge pipeline 6B (built later, in 1969), on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, ruptured in 2010, causing the largest inland oil spill in the nation’s history, and that spill, with its 35 miles of oil-coated riverbank and $1.21 billion cleanup tab, set people to asking “what ifs” about the Straits pipeline. Schwab relied on data from drifter buoys (GPS tracks their position) and current meters to build the model. For the 2012 study, he developed two weather scenarios to predict where the oil would end up.

Here’s what stunned Dr. David Schwab: The flow of water through the Straits can be up to 16 times the volume of water thundering over Niagara Falls.

The current in the Straits can move at the rate of the Detroit River, 4 miles per hour. The Straits water generally flows from Lake Michigan eastward to Lake Huron, but often, weather conditions cause the flow to suddenly reverse, flowing at the same rate from east to west. (Imagine if Niagara Falls reversed direction at the whim of the weather.) Adding to the gee-whiz nature wonder and complexity: In summer, when the lake divides into warm water on top and cold water on the bottom, separated by a thermocline, the top and bottom currents can be going in opposite directions at the same time. Given the volume, speed and complexity of the Straits currents and the delicate nature of the surrounding shores, Schwab surmised that, in all the Great Lakes, this narrow waterway would be the worst possible place for an oil spill.

Two years after Schwab’s initial report, in March 2016, he released a follow-up study. This time he modeled 840 weather scenarios—based on all of 2014’s weather patterns—and tracked where oil would go under the influence of each one. He found that 90 percent of oil releases would impact Mackinac Island. He found that in some conditions, oil could reach Beaver Island in nine days. In a strong north wind, the oil would quickly blow to the southern shore. In one set of conditions, oil could escape to Lake Huron and then drift south as far as Saginaw Bay. This assumes nature being left alone, no spill response teams.

Reflecting today upon that worst case scenario statement from 2012, he says the new data only reinforces his assessment. “I stand by it—this is the worst place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill.”

Whether they’ve read the report or are just relying on their intuition, a growing chorus of people agree with Schwab, and furthermore, they want Line 5 shut down. Enbridge, with its $24 billion a year in annual revenue and the largest oil and liquid transportation system in the world, is determined to turn that strengthening current of public opinion around.

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

A new type of oil spill capture device to be stationed in the Straits can travel at 5 knots compared to previous generation booms that travel at 1 knot maximum.

The year is 1953. Joseph Stalin dies. Playboy magazine is born. Northern Michigan’s resorter son Ernest Hemingway wins the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man and the Sea. A Canadian company called Lakehead Pipe Line Company (renamed Enbridge in 1998) opens the valves on two brand new 20-inch-diameter oil pipelines laid along the lake bottom of the Mackinac Straits. Designed by vaunted engineering giant Bechtel, the pipeline is considered an engineering marvel, and amid the swagger of post-WWII years, America is willing and proud to believe in engineering marvels. The Mackinac Bridge, an engineering marvel itself, opens four years later.

The Straits pipelines are part of Line 5, a 30-inch-diameter pipeline that carries natural gas liquids and light crude oil from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. At the Straits, the pipeline divides into the two 20-inch pipes that run parallel about a quarter-mile apart and then converge back into a single 30-inch pipe on the southern shore.

The pipe walls are 0.812-inch-thick steel and fabricated from molten metal for extra strength and to eliminate running seams. The only welds are where the pipe sections join. The entire underwater section is encased in a rust-proofing material made of coal tar and asbestos. A cathodic protection system reduces the rate of corrosion on the pipe as well.

To detect a spill, oil flow meters on the north and south shores of the Straits constantly monitor the pipeline, and if there’s a discrepancy—higher flow and pressure going in than coming out of that stretch—then staff deploy two shut-off valves—also on the north and south shores—taking three minutes to fully close. Enbridge says with this system in place, a maximum of 4,500 barrels, equal to 189,000 gallons, of oil would be released in the event of a rupture. Opponents say the volume could be greater if shut-off valves fail to close.

In all its 63 years, though, Line 5 beneath the Straits never has ruptured, never has sprung a leak, and Enbridge says that today the pipeline integrity there is as sound as ever. “If you maintain infrastructure, it can last indefinitely—look at the Mackinac Bridge,” says Gordie Fredine, manager of mainline integrity analysis for Enbridge. As Fredine speaks, he stands behind a table in a large meeting room at the Mackinaw Beach and Bay hotel in Mackinaw City, just a few miles from where Line 5 meets the Straits’ southern shore.

Fredine, who is based in the company’s operational headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, is here as part of an Enbridge road show, open houses in six northern Michigan towns where locals can eat free pork barbecue and coleslaw and meet the Enbridge team. There are managers like Fredine and field people, like the men out in the parking lot who are showing off new high-speed oil skimmers, which can move at 5 knots, versus the traditional 1 knot.

The spill response gear is a centerpiece of the tour, and Enbridge is touting the $7 million investment to display a commitment to do the right thing—improve operations following a spill response training exercise last September that showed gaps in local equipment, manpower and planning for handling 189,000 gallons of oil gushing into the Straits of Mackinac. One key change: keeping the spill response equipment in the Straits, not in distant ports.

Even with the new gear, spill response veterans explain that oil recovery performance is highly dependent on weather conditions. On calm waters, and with quick response, recovery rates of higher than 95 percent are entirely possible. In rough water, the oil recovery could easily be less than 30 percent. The new state-of-the-art oil skimming equipment, for example, cannot perform in waves beyond three to five feet. And ice calls for an entirely different strategy. One of the most effective is busting a classroom-sized hole in the ice where oil is and lighting it on fire. The fire tends to pull other oil from under the ice into the flame. Not exactly a Pure Michigan ad campaign, but says Alan Allen, a spill responder who did his first job in 1969 and helped clean up Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, the burn approach works surprisingly well.

It’s perhaps a gauge of how concerned Enbridge is about the rising tide of anti-pipeline sentiment in Michigan that the company is paying to put about 30 people on the road for three days of public meetings, with two sessions a day. The company has good reason for concern. In July 2015, Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette said, due to environmental concerns, “You would not build a Straits pipeline in this decade. Its days are numbered, its duration is limited in my opinion.” And Schuette has made it known he wants to be governor.

Even Dan Musser, president of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel and a devout but typically off-stage Republican, went public with a call for closure of the Straits pipeline in an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press during the very week Enbridge was presenting in Mackinaw City. Enbridge refuses to disclose what the closure of Line 5 would mean to the company financially speaking.

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Left: Gordie Fredine, Enbridge manager of mainline integrity analysis. Right: Alan Allen, spill response contractor. Fredine is holding a scale model of a pipeline “pig,” which travels through pipes searching for imperfections like cracks, dents and corrosion.

On the table in front of Fredine lies a scale model of one of the high-tech sensor tools sent through the Straits pipelines at least once every two years. The tool looks for imperfections in the pipe that could indicate corrosion, dents or fatigue cracks. Enbridge hires General Electric to run the test, and when the results come back, they go to Fredine and his team to analyze, determine which spots need to be inspected further, repaired if necessary—not just in the Straits, but in the entire 17,000-mile Enbridge pipeline system.

The most recent inspection data that Enbridge released was done in 2013. It found nine spots in the eastern pipeline that showed corrosion, the longest was 7.3 inches long and had cut into 26 percent of the wall thickness. Government regulations don’t require repair until corrosion reaches 50 percent. According to Enbridge, the corrosion does not appear to be worsening. The inspection equipment has not detected corrosion in the western pipe. Opponents say, however, there can also be stress within the pipe wall that does not show on the wall surfaces.

Pipeline opponents say there’s also a threat on the outside. The currents going this way and that are flexing the pipe and could cause stress fractures. What’s more, quagga mussels cover the pipeline, and opponents say their weight and their acidic secretions pose additional threats. Enbridge says it has run the analysis and there are not signs of stress cracks and that the mussels would have to be 8 to 10 inches thick to be a problem, whereas now they are a few inches thick. Regulators must decide whom to believe.

The Enbridge open houses attract a mix of people. Some are neutral but curious. Some are supporters. Some are convinced Line 5 must go. When the road show arrives in Traverse City a couple of days after Mackinaw City, about a dozen protestors with signs saying “Shut Down Line 5 Pipeline” stand on the road shoulder by the meeting hall; behind them, the Grand Traverse Bay sparkles blue in gorgeous late afternoon sun. It’s not a scientific survey, but the sound of drivers honking in support of the protestors and shouting encouragement is nearly constant. Several cars have a kayak or a canoe or a paddleboard on top, or a boat towed behind—this is the Water Wonderland, after all.

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Chris Shepler, president of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry.

At 10 o’clock in the morning, May 31, 2016, Chris Shepler, president of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, is patrolling his ferry docks in Mackinaw City. Like all the other Shepler employees, the president sports the company uniform of navy blue shorts and white polo with the Shepler’s logo on the upper left front. Though it’s the Tuesday after Memorial Day, this will be the busiest day of Shepler’s year, because it’s the kickoff of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce annual policy conference on Mackinac Island. Customers hauling luggage stream in from the parking lots. Customers stand at the ticket counter. Customers stand in line at the ferry loading area. A ferry returning from the island rumbles into port and eases up to its slip. Another ferry is already letting guests on board. Above it all, seagulls wheel against the blue sky and squawk. The great engine of Mackinac’s tourism economy has powered up for the summer once again.

Shepler wants to talk in the corporate conference room, so he walks toward what looks like a smallish two-story house at the end of the dock, perched three feet from the water. “This was my grandparents’ house,” he says, as he opens the door. He spent his summer boyhoods here at the house, here at the docks, and when old enough, did his part to help with the ferries. Today the house is cut up into a warren of tiny office spaces, with people working in every nook, but some artifacts from Grandpa and Grandma—like the bright red shag carpet—are still there in what was once the living room. “That’s where we used to watch TV,” he says, pointing at a patch of carpet by the picture window. “That over there is the bedroom I slept in when I spent the night.” He walks up the stairs and enters the conference room. “This was my grandparents’ bedroom.”

Before he takes a seat, he stands at a big window that looks out upon the Straits. “That lake is as much a part of my life as my Mom and Dad,” he says. “That lake, right there.”

Shepler rode the ferries as a boy. Drove the ferries when he was old enough, and by now he’s been a licensed captain on the Straits for 34 years. “That water changes every minute of every day of every year,” he says. “I’ve been out there a million times.” He’s seen days when the current was flowing west to east when he motored into the harbor at Mackinac Island, and it was flowing opposite, east to west, by the time he was returning to Mackinaw City. “That whole model that Schwab put together, when I watched that [the oil spill video simulation on the internet], it was like, Duh, yeah, that’s totally what I expected.”

Shepler concedes he had passed the oil pipeline markers on the Straits shore his whole life, and never given them any thought, but that all changed with the Kalamazoo River oil spill. For him, the cause for fear was instantly apparent: the same company, similar infrastructure, similar product, similar process—but in the Mackinac Straits. “Think about it,” he says. “If there’s a spill I’m done. That girl you hear talking on the phone in the other room—she’s done too.” He points down through the floor. “Our accountant is done.” He points off toward the ferry slips. “My brother is done. My dad is done. Our marina is done. Our 225 employees are done.”

Shepler’s thoughts echo opponents who talk about the potential economic downward spiral if an oil spill were to happen. Would Mackinac Island’s water intake be fouled and the island evacuated? Would people sell their homes? If tourism shut down for the summer, the cost to the state in lost tax dollars and unemployment could be tremendous. Following Flint, can Michigan afford another national profile aging-infrastructure fail?

Shepler struggled over going public with his views. “I’m a conservative, a Republican. And who am I to be telling another business what to do?” he says. But he could not quell his fear of an oil spill. A newspaper called him and he spoke his mind.

Shepler’s quote ran and Jim Lively read it. Lively is the program director for Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, based in Traverse City. He had been rounding up support for shutting down Line 5. He especially wanted to tap into the business community. He asked Shepler if he’d lend his voice to the movement. “And I said, ‘You can use my name as you move forward, Mr. Lively.’”

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Jim Lively, program director for Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

Jim Lively has searched but has yet to find a case in which a fully operating oil pipeline has ever been shut down in the United States due to environmental concern and public opposition. Perhaps that “never done before” made it difficult for people to consider shutdown as a possibility when concern about Line 5 first rose to public consciousness after the Kalamazoo River spill. Back then, even environmental groups tended to call for replacing the 63-year-old pipeline with a new and better pipeline, a 21st century pipeline.

But Jim Lively could not accept the solution of a better pipeline. He had a meeting with his boss, Hans Voss, executive director of Groundwork. “I said, ‘We are either going for a shutdown or we are not in.’” Lively wrote an opinion piece that staked out the argument for shutting down Line 5, and it ran in Crain’s Detroit Business in May 2014. In addition to being the first wide distribution of that idea, the placement in a business journal signaled a key element of the Groundwork strategy: move beyond the core environmental choir and bring in the business community. Make shutdown a big tent idea by helping people understand the statewide economic consequences of a pipeline failure in the Straits of Mackinac, by helping people understand the impact on the Pure Michigan tourism machine.

That business approach explains why on the same day Chris Shepler is bustling around his ferry docks helping people reach the Detroit Chamber event, Jim Lively and his colleagues are taking a page from the business playbook themselves. They have reserved a deck behind the Chippewa Hotel restaurant, right downtown on Mackinac Island. They have hors d’ouevres. They wear suits and dresses. And they’ve invited the business community, hoping they can convince them to drop by on their way between ferry dock and Grand Hotel.

In attendance is Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Traverse City–based nonprofit that has been a leader in the Line 5 debate since 2013. An environmental lawyer, she unearthed the original easement that Michigan signed with Enbridge’s earlier incarnation. To give an idea of how “out of sight, out of mind” the pipeline had become in Michigan, when she first called to ask for the easement document, the state employee told her Michigan throws away documents that are over 40 years old. “I said, ‘This is a deed. I don’t think the state throws away deeds.’”

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW.

A key disclosure when the deed was finally found: The document stipulated that the pipeline have no unsupported spans longer than 75 feet, which Enbridge subsequently acknowledged it was not in compliance with. Following the disclosure, though, the company completed the project without objection. In June 2016, Kirkwood met with officials from the senior staff of the attorney general’s office and explained that the easement and the public trust law on which it’s based clearly gives the state the authority to shut down the pipeline because Enbridge did not comply with the easement provisions and the pipeline presents a hazard to the Straits. The staff chose not to act, explaining they are waiting for two studies currently underway: a risk assessment and an alternatives assessment.

Also in attendance on the Chippewa Hotel deck, Aaron Payment, son of a tribal fisherman and chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. His first experience with Enbridge was when he was executive director of the Kalamazoo-area tribe and the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill happened. He knew tribe employees who were evacuated from their homes near the river. He flew in a helicopter with EPA officials above the river to see the spill’s damage: black oil flowing down the river. “I felt disgust,” he says.

But not much in attendance: The business community. A few already committed anti-pipeline business people, yes. But that’s about it. And on the agenda of the Detroit Chamber’s policy conference: no mention of Line 5.

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe.

When Enbridge employees hire on, at their orientation each is given a ring. The ring is shiny and looks new, but it’s made from the metal of Line 6B, the pipeline that blew a 6-foot gash and gushed oil for 17 hours and contaminated 35 miles of river. That ring is meant as a reminder, the horror of 6B should never be forgotten by anybody in Enbridge anywhere in North America or anywhere on the planet. The ring is a signal that Enbridge needs to be a new company, that it is no longer the company described thusly in the accident report written by the National Transportation Safety Board to explain the Kalamazoo River release:

“Deficient integrity management procedures, which allowed well-documented crack defects in corroded areas to propagate until the pipeline failed. Inadequate training of control center personnel, which allowed the rupture to remain undetected for 17 hours and through two startups of the pipeline. Insufficient public awareness and education, which allowed the release to continue for nearly 14 hours after the first notification of an odor to local emergency response agencies.”

But for Line 5 opponents, that report explains why they can’t quite get over why supports were not added to Line 5 until there was public attention. Why spill response was so inadequate until there was public attention. Why Enbridge refused to release inspection data until the state forced it to do so. Still, when you talk to the Enbridge people, like Gordie Fredine, manager of mainline integrity analysis, who are doing the work, who are manning the stations at the Enbridge road show, you don’t doubt that they are sincere, hard working and wanting to do the right thing. When they say, “That was a black mark on our company. Enbridge is a new company now,” they mean it.

But regardless of how sincere Enbridge workers are now about protecting the Straits, there is always an inherent risk of a rupture and consequent spill when oil is piped. It is a risk that even Enbridge would not deny. For Jim Lively and others in his “shut down the pipeline” camp, that risk is too much for the sometimes peaceful, sometimes terrifying, but always cherished waters of the Mackinac Straits.

Line 5, Photo by Beth Price

Protestors with signs saying “Shut Down Line 5 Pipeline” stand on the road shoulder in Traverse City.

Next chapter: The state is commissioning two studies of Line 5, one a risk assessment (How likely is it that Line 5 will rupture and what would happen if it did?) and the other an evaluation of alternatives (Is loading the oil onto barges or rail or truck even more risky? What about using the expanded capacity in Line 6B—more than doubled when the line was repaired) Expect the reports about the end of 2017. Look for those studies and the outcome of the next governor election to influence the pipeline’s fate.

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Photo(s) by Beth Price