Concerns Mount About 61-Year Old Enbridge Pipeline in the Great Lakes

Of the 30 million Canadians and Americans depending on the Great Lakes for water very few would guess there is an oil pipeline sitting in their drinking water supply. It is anyone’s guess if this 61-year old Enbridge pipeline, known as Line 5, is pumping bitumen from the Alberta oilsands through the Great Lakes.

U.S. pipeline regulations do not require Enbridge to make public if Line 5 is transporting bitumen. Enbridge says the pipeline carries light crude oil mainly from the Bakken shale in North Dakota. The pipeline begins in Superior, Wis., and cuts through Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, in the U.S. to get to its end destination of Sarnia, Ont.

(U.S.) Pipelines in general are considered a national security risk,” says Beth Wallace, a regional coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

So PHMSA is not willing to provide records of Line 5 that provide detailed information about the location, integrity or product transported,” Wallace told DeSmog Canada. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) oversees pipelines for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The National Wildlife Federation conducted an underwater dive last year to investigate and film the condition of Line 5. The federation discovered some of the pipeline’s steel supports meant to keep Line 5 secured to the bottum of the Straits had broken. Other sections of the pipeline were covered with debris.

Line 5 To Transport Bitumen Soon, If Not Already

The National Wildlife Federation believes if Line 5 is not transporting bitumen now, it will be in the near future.

If Enbridge is granted authority to increase capacity on the Alberta Clipper pipeline, there will be an incredible increase in the amount of heavy bitumen pushed into Superior, Wisconsin, where Line 5 begins,” Wallace says.

Map of Enbridge pipelines including Line 5 and estimated response times to a rupture. The yellow ring indicates it would take Enbridge three hours to respond to a Line 5 spill in the Straits of Mackinac.

A U.S. decision on Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper is expected next year. Earlier this week, Enbridge announced its Line 3 pipeline will be replaced by a new pipeline with expanded capacity. Both pipelines ship oil and bitumen from Alberta to Superior, Wis.

Concerns of a Bitumen Spill in the Great Lakes

Residents of Michigan experienced the worst bitumen spill in U.S. history when Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured, spilling more than three million liters of bitumen and oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Bitumen — the tar-like form of petroleum in oilsands — sinks in water, unlike conventional oil. Enbridge has dredged the Kalamazoo multiple times in an attempt to remove the bitumen from the river. The cleanup is still going on four years after the spill.

Underwater footage of Line 5.

The environmental damage a bitumen spill can cause plus Enbridge’s spill record — estimated at eight hundred pipeline spills between 1999 and 2010 — has Canadians worried about a Line 5 rupture as well. Georgian Bay, Ontario’s most vibrant bay, makes up the eastern part of Lake Huron.

We are very concerned about Line 5,” says Therese Trainor of the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Area Council in Manitoulin Island, Ont.

Georgian Bay is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. We have flora and fauna here you cannot find anywhere else. We could lose this in an oil spill,” Trainor told DeSmog Canada.

There is no land between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to stop the Straits of Mackinac’s swift water currents from spreading an oil spill into either lake. The National Wildlife Federation estimates in its Sunken Hazard report that if Line 5 has a large oil spill it could reach Georgian Bay.

Underwater dive of Line 5 conducted by the National Wildlife Federation.

Condtions in Straits of Mackinac Make it a Terrible Place For A Oil Spill

This (Straits of Mackinac) is a terrible place for a rupture,” says pipeline safety expert Richard Kuprewicz.

Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert with 40 years of experience in the energy sector, says pipeline ruptures are difficult enough to cleanup, but conditions in the Straits of Mackinac would make things much worse. Line 5 at its deepest is 90 metres underwater and the straits freeze over in the winter. 

What emergency responders could do about a burst pipeline nearly 100 metres below in the either stormy or frozen straits is questionable.

“Pardon the expression, but cleaning up and containing a Line 5 rupture in the straits would be a crap shoot,” says Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation.

There are no reports of Line 5 rupturing in the Straits of Mackinac. The 76-centimeter (30-inch) wide pipeline splits into two smaller 50-centimeter (20-inch) wide pipelines with thicker pipe walls (2.5 cm) in the straits. An external coal-tar coating minimizes corrosion on the pipeline. Coal-tar coating has had “mixed success” in the past protecting pipelines, according to Kuprewicz.

 “Just because a pipeline hasn’t leaked or ruptured in the past doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. The past does not predict the future,” Kuprewicz, president of research group Accufacts Inc.,  told DeSmog Canada.

Line 5 has ruptured on land, notably in 1999 at Crystal Falls, Mich., spilling 850,000 litres of oil and natural gas liquids.

Underwater photo of Line 5.

Michigan Needs To Protect the Great Lakes Commons

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the Michigan-based Great Lakes advocacy group FLOW (For Love of Water), argues Enbridge should be required to secure permission from the state of Michigan under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act before the pipeline company can transport bitumen through the Straits of Mackinac.

As a trustee of the Great Lakes, the state of Michigan is obligated to assess possible impairments to the public’s use of the Great Lakes and protect the lakes for the enjoyment of present and future generations,” Kirkwood says.

Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act requires companies to obtain state permits to build or modify structures in the Great Lakes. Line 5 was built in 1953. The Act came into effect in 1955.

Image credit: PHMSA, all underwater photos of Line 5 courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation.