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Big waves would cripple Enbridge's ability to respond to Line 5 leak, experts say

Dec 8, 2015

Enbridge Line 5 runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario.
Credit Enbridge

There are many Michiganders feeling uneasy about the idea of those 62-year-old twin oil pipelines running along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

The aging Line 5 can carry 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids each day.

Enbridge has made promises to keep the pipeline maintained and said it’s got an emergency response team in place, but there’s a complicating factor that no one can control: big, turbulent waves.

Both the U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Pollution Control told Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny, “If waves reach a height of three to five feet, it would effectively prevent them going out on the water … and deploying the types of things that contain an oil spill and start to clean it up.”

Matheny tells us that Enbridge has talked a lot about the amount of personnel and equipment they have at the ready in the event of an oil leak, but they haven’t spoken so much about how that would all work if there’s bad weather.

“And of course, there’s bad weather with some frequency in the Straits,” he says. He cites the Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory’s historical marine weather data showing that for as many as 24 days of the year the Straits experience three- to five-foot waves for the entire day.

When taking into account partial days that experience this kind of weather, Matheny says it brings the total to nearly three months. That’s three months out of the year that Enbridge would be unable to take action against a leak in the pipeline.

Matheny tells us that Enbridge has emphasized that “they wouldn’t be completely idle while the waves were kicked up,” and would still be able to take measures to protect the shoreline.

“And that’s all great and it’s very important, but when we think about what we’ve sort of been promised, we imagine that they would be out there responding as quickly as possible to contain a spill in one place and to start to clean it up, and that’s the kind of activity, out there with boats, that wouldn’t be happening,” he says.

He tells us that due to the Straits’ dynamic currents, a spill could spread as far as Rogers City on the Lake Huron side and out to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan within a matter of days.

“Every bit of time that is not being addressed out on the water would make it more difficult to recover oil,” Matheny says.

Keith Matheny’s story Oil spill, high waves: A Great Lakes disaster scenario can be found at freep.com.