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Time to shut it down

Aug 10, 2017

I've been up north, as we say in this state, for the last week, on Lake Michigan about fifty miles from the Straits of Mackinac. Fifty miles, that is, from Line 5, the oil pipeline – actually, twin pipelines -- under the straits. There has been a lot of concern about Line 5 in recent years.

People have suddenly discovered the existence of the line, which can carry as much as 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and liquid natural gas a day, pumped at high pressure under the lakes.

(Read more: What's the status of the old oil pipeline under Lake Michigan? We need more information to know.)

The pipeline is old. It’s been there for 64 years, and was built in an era when there was no EPA, and environmental regulation was minimal at best. And it is also owned and operated by Enbridge, a Canadian-based company that also owns another pipeline, Line 6B, which broke seven years ago near the Kalamazoo River.

That break sent more than a million gallons of oil into a tributary of the river, and caused an environmental disaster that took years and more than a billion dollars to clean up.

That disaster, bad as it was, would be a pinprick compared to what could happen if Line 5 broke. You could have two of the greatest lakes in the world damaged beyond repair.

None of what I just said is new. Nor is a report from a company called Dynamic Risk, saying the chances of the pipeline breaking in the next few decades were “only” about two percent.

But what is new, or at least insufficiently publicized, were comments last week from both Michigan’s Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality.

Essentially, both the DNR and DEQ said the Dynamic Risk report grossly underestimates the effects and cost of a disaster. This comes, by the way, after credible allegations that the chief engineer for Dynamic Risk was also being paid to do a project for Enbridge, which makes the entire report suspect.

The Michigan DNR and DEQ haven’t exactly been environmental heroes under the Snyder administration. Think Flint.

But both agencies are worried about Line 5, and in polite language, said last week that Dynamic Risk’s assessments were essentially garbage.

Dynamic Risk, for example, said the maximum cost of a break, including cleanup and environmental damage, would be around $205 million. The DEQ noted that when a barge sunk and spilled a mere 15 barrels of oil into one of the Great Lakes five years ago, it cost more than $300 million to clean up.

Now imagine a break that would pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of light crude oil into both major lakes. The DEQ noted that there are more than 50,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the area.

The DNR noted the Dynamic Risk report didn’t say what would happen if a spill happened when members of many animal species are migrating. Nor did it properly assess its impact on drinking water. Democrat Dana Nessel, who is running for Michigan Attorney General next year, told me she’d find a way to shut Line 5 down immediately.

I think it’s clear we can’t wait that long. Bill Schuette, the state’s current AG, has said it should be shut down someday. I think we have more than enough evidence to show that someday should be right now.

In full disclosure, Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.