EAST TAWAS – The Straits of Mackinac Alliance hosted a panel discussion at the East Tawas Community Center on Sept. 19, which brought in roughly 40 attendees.
The nonprofit group is championing for the shutdown of Enbridge Line 5, which runs 645 miles from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario, crossing over 100 tributaries and 400 water bodies in Michigan. The 30-inch line splits into two, 20-inch diameter pipes under the Straits of Mackinac, between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, for 4.1 miles.
Owned by Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership, based in Canada, the 66-year-old line has been in operation since 1953 and was designed to last 50 years.
According to the Alliance, the line delivers 540,000 barrels per day – or almost 23 million gallons – of light/synthetic crude and natural gas liquids, with 95 percent of the crude oil ending up at refineries in Canada for Canadian consumption or export.
The issue at the center of the discussion – led by Alliance members Roger Gauthier, Robert Kennedy and Bill Richardson – was the outcome if Line 5 were to fail.
The groups states that there have been at least 33 spills from Line 5 since 1970, releasing more than 1.1 million gallons.
The tunnel proposal related to the pipeline, as well as the anchor supports on the line, were also discussed at length.
Gauthier began by sharing some of his background. In addition to working on a lake freighter, an oceanographic research ship and being employed by such entities as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Great Lakes Commission, he also spent about 30 years as chief of the office of hydraulics and hydrology for the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.
“Our principle focus right now is to contest the state of Michigan’s permits for the anchor supports on the line,” he said.
“We have two co-litigants. One is the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Indians, and the other one is the City of Mackinac Island,” he continued. “So we’re not out here on our own.”
Gauthier then showed two videos to the audience, one of which was the trailer for a three-part documentary series by Barton Bund, which can be viewed online in its entirety by going to https://www.line5film.com.
Gauthier strongly encouraged the crowd to watch the full video, saying it contains information from a lot of very talented people who give their opinions on significant issues related to Line 5.
He also showed an approximately 17-minute-long film from Motherboard entitled, “The Dirty Secret at the Bottom of the Great Lakes: Oil & Water,” which can be accessed online via YouTube.
One person interviewed for the film was Dave Schwab, a research scientist for the University of Michigan, who said he couldn’t imagine a worse place for an oil spill to happen in the Great Lakes. The oil would spread faster and further, and impact more miles of shoreline than any place else.
The narrator of the piece, Motherboard’s Spencer Chumbley, touched on a previous Enbridge oil spill.
“While the world was fixated on BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Enbridge’s Line 6B ruptured on July 26, 2010, spilling over 800,000 gallons of oil from the Alberta tar sands into the Kalamazoo River, just outside Marshall, Michigan. It would be the largest inland oil spill in American history,” he reported.
While meeting with Schwab, the two went over the computer models Schwab created to show what a spill would look like in the Straits, and where the oil would travel within the water tables.
“The oil would travel far, fast and in different directions,” Chumbley observed.
According to Schwab, the amount of water going through the Straits, in one direction or another, at the peak is more than 10 times what goes over Niagara Falls.
Following this, Gauthier said one point of discussion that some of those in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) are generally concerned with, is the propane from the line.
In Rapid River, propane is taken out of the mixes that are sent through Line 5. “So they draw off some of that propane,” he advised, noting that concerns have been expressed regarding elderly residents and heating needs in the winter months, if the line is shut down due to the propane being shut off in Rapid River.
According to Gauthier, the western U.P. and into Wisconsin gets most of its propane from Superior, Wis. by truck. The eastern U.P. gets almost all of its propane from a rail car that goes across the St. Mary’s River. The area of influence, then, is mostly around Marquette.
Information from the Alliance reads that Line 5 provides propane to the central U.P. which can be delivered via a new, four-inch line, three to four tanker trucks or one to two rail cars per day.
Gauthier said the question that also needs to be asked is what these residents would do if Line 5 fails. “There’s no fallback; there’s no contingency plan.”
He said the governor’s task force on energy independence in the U.P. is looking at green energy solutions, as well as plans for any cut back on propane going through.
As for Line 5, he said it was designed to rest on the bottom of the lake, and the steel that was used is thick, in order to counteract buoyancy. If there was going to be a situation where the line didn’t have product in it, it would float off the bottom.
He said the 1953 easement for the line required a maximum unsupported span of 75 feet, adding that, at the time it was designed, any unsupported spans over 140 feet would make it unstable.
“There was a sequence in the mid-1990s where the biggest gap from the supports was 240 feet. Now what’s important about this is that steel has a level of elasticity to it. It’s able to bounce back and not deform; it’s kept within that 75-foot maximum, and never to exceed 140 feet,” Gauthier said.
He explained that down cutting occurs when currents are coming in under the structure and moving the sediment on the bottom. “The thermodynamics of a relatively hot oil going through a very, very cold pipe at the bottom, 240 feet, is significant. That line can move three to four feet, all on its own accord. And they recognized that when they designed that system.”
According to Gauthier, it was around 2000 when the company started noticing that mechanical supports were needed.
The agreement for the line 6B spill required that this line have 75-foot anchor supports in place, he continued.
Gauthier said a problem with the supports is that now a line has been anchored, that was supposed to have a certain level of elasticity/flexibility, to an unstable bottom. “This thing is going to fail at some point in time.”
Literature from the Straits of Mackinac Alliance reads that, since 2002, 150 anchor supports were installed to combat lake bed erosion caused by higher currents than expected, with 51 more supports approved by the state of Michigan. The group claims that no engineering analysis has been performed to assess the new stresses on the pipelines as elevated structures.
Gauthier noted that the first 70 feet of depth is armored on both sides to protect it from ice, but the rest is elevated. So, with the additional 51 anchor supports, more than 50 percent of the line will be suspended when it was designed to lay on the bottom.
“And I’ll tell you right now, the Corps of Engineers has not approved those last 51, and I’m happy. Because at least somebody’s asking the question as to what’s going on here. This is not maintenance, this is a brand new design,” he said.
“My biggest worry is those anchors are taking a line that was designed to have some flex and making them stable. They’re anchoring them to an unstable bed,” he added.
As for the alternative being discussed, he said the tunnel authorizing legislation was put forward, and Enbridge sued the state because Attorney General Dana Nessel determined the legislation to be unconstitutional.
“That’s in court right now. And she came after them about six, seven weeks ago, and said we’re going to cancel the easement. So that’s a very major piece of litigation,” Gauthier said. “She’s now taking them to court to shut down the line, in Ingham County.”
While the tunnel talks go on, he pointed out that Enbridge will continue pumping millions of crude through the aging line.
A woman in the audience asked what would be wrong with having a tunnel, and whether it would be more secure.
Gauthier said the estimate to construct a tunnel around the lines – which would take reportedly five to seven years to complete – is $350-$500 million, which he referred to as a myth. “It is the biggest myth being perpetuated on all of us.”
He said the price is a planning estimate, for one. He also remarked that a tunnel may not even be feasible, given the 90-120 feet of unconsolidated materials in the Straits of Mackinac, such as sand, clay, cobble and rock.
“They’re not drilling through bedrock. They’re drilling through unconsolidated materials, which is going to tell me that they have to have significant reinforced concrete throughout that tunnel design,” he said.
“By the time they’re done with that, their construction estimate is likely going to be two to three times higher than that, and then they’re going to have cost overages,” he continued.
“And the discussion now is, you’ve got natural gas liquids in there and you’ve got ventilation, you’ve got electrical – you’re asking for an explosion,” he said.
Kennedy said he agreed with Gauthier that the tunnel will never actually come to fruition but, if it does, “What about the other 640 miles of that underground pipeline? It’s thinner than the pipeline going into the Straits. It’s already had 30-plus spills.”
Kennedy, who also noted that Line 5 traverses under the AuSable River near Grayling, said the climate crisis is another reason he believes the tunnel shouldn’t be built.
“Why do we want to have an oil legacy, a fossil fuel legacy, for 50 years or more by building a tunnel?” he asked. “All we’re going to do is commit to using a fuel that we should be weaning ourselves off of.”
“I don’t think there ever will be a tunnel, because the energy world is changing,” agreed Richardson.
In reference to the Kalamazoo River spill, he reiterated that a new line was installed with a greater capacity, and this also connects to Sarnia. “So maybe if things get so bad and they can’t use the lines under the Straits, they can ship all that oil through that pipeline and they won’t need a tunnel.”
If Line 5 were to fail, Alliance representatives have listed such detriments as job loss, a shutdown of commercial shipping, public health damages, environmental consequences, economic disasters and more.
“They say that, even in a conventional oil spill, they can only recover 30 percent of the product. Let that sink in,” Gauthier said.
He added that if booms were deployed to address a spill, it would only cover a one-mile length. “And they don’t have the boats to deploy them in the Straits, nor do they have the personnel who are trained to deploy them.”
He also said the booms that would be used don’t work if the waves are greater than one foot. “If you’ve got currents in exceedance of 1½ feet per second, the booms won’t contain the spill.”
The booms won’t work when there’s ice cover, either, should a rupture occur in the colder months, Gauthier said.
“Once it’s out there, it is not going to be able to be recovered,” he commented of the oil.
“The Straits is in constant disequilibrium, even if it’s a calm day. If there’s any barometric pressure moving that goes across the Great Lakes, you’re going to get a movement of water through the Straits, one way or another,” he went on.
An audience member asked if there would be an economic impact to the state if Line 5 shuts down, to which Kennedy said about five percent of the product that comes across the line benefits Michiganders. “The other 95 percent, they’re simply using us for a shortcut to continue to make their product.”
Other items noted during the meeting, according to the panelists, are listed as follows:
• It was also discovered during this process that Consumers power has abandoned power cables in the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac which contain highly toxic fluid.
• There would be more jobs created to remove the line in question, than there would be with constructing a tunnel.
• Enbridge’s liability coverage of $1 million required under the 1953 easement was recently modified by the state of Michigan, allowing Enbridge to self-insure for losses. Inadequate liability coverage means the public will absorb most losses from a spill.
In terms of what the public can do, panel members said that staying informed is something which can’t be stressed enough.
“Meetings like this are very, very valuable, because you can go out now and you can talk to your friends,” Kennedy said.
The East Tawas panel discussion was the eighth of its kind this year in various municipalities, with several more upcoming meetings scheduled by the Straits of Mackinac Alliance.
Another step representatives noted was to engage federal, local and state officials. “This is not just a state of Michigan issue. This has got a lot of federal implications,” Gauthier said.
He remarked that, as far as he is concerned, this is a nonpartisan topic that should be near and dear to everyone’s hearts.
“Mark my words, the only way that thing is coming down is on a technicality, or us being able to prove it’s not fit for service,” he said of Line 5.
“We have to hire expert witnesses that have skills in hydrodynamics, bottom sediment movement, the age of pipeline failures and metallurgical problems,” he continued.
He said the Alliance has retained at least one expert witness, and that these individuals are a commodity who have to be certified by the courts. There is a lot of fight to get expert witnesses accepted at the court level, and it doesn’t come cheap.
For more information about the Alliance, visit www.straitsalliance.org.
As passionate as the group is about the matter, there are still two sides to every story.
Ryan Duffy, a communications strategist for Enbridge who works out of the company’s Lansing office, provided the following information on the tunnel project:
• Enbridge remains committed to moving forward with the tunnel project which would invest $500 million into the State to ensure security of energy supply and reduce risk to the Straits to virtually zero, and could be under construction by 2021 and in service by 2024.
• The tunnel solution is the best long-term opportunity to secure the energy needs of the State while making an already safe pipeline even safer.
• We believe that the most effective path forward is to work expeditiously toward permitting and construction of the Tunnel, rather than through the courts. Evidence of our commitment to work collaboratively includes continuation of our $40 Million 2019 engineering and geotechnical program, which will allow us to maintain the earliest possible in-service date for the crossing.
• Line 5 is a critical source of 540,000 barrels per day of propane and crude oil supply for Michigan and surrounding areas, and shutting it down would lead to a serious disruption of the energy market. Line 5 serves an estimated 55 percent of the state’s propane needs, including approximately 65 percent of the propane used in the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, for which no viable alternatives exist.
• Line 5 also supplies Michigan and regional refineries that provide the state with various fuels its residents rely on in their day-to-day lives. Refineries served by Line 5 supply a large percentage of the aviation fuel at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, an important contributor to the state’s economy.
To learn more about Enbridge’s stance, go to https://www.enbridge.com/Line5.