While Enbridge's Line 5 might be the most controversial pipeline in Michigan, it’s not the only one running under the state.
The pipeline system in Michigan is vast, convoluted and crisscrosses more than 120,000 miles. About 97% of the lines carry natural gas, and 3% carry what are considered hazardous liquids like propane, petroleum, and crude oil, according to the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization in Northern Michigan.
Pipelines have an important role in transporting the fuel used to heat homes, power cars and planes, and even help make household goods.
The same stuff can be transported using oil tankers, rail cars or trucks, but pipelines are considered one of the safer and most economically and logistically efficient ways to transport fuel over long distances. Yet they still come with the immense risk of an oil spill.
Aging infrastructure and the proximity of some lines to fresh water sources in the state make it a bigger concern, says the head of University of Michigan’s Water Center. “That could have a huge impact on the economy and not to mention ecological impacts as well,” Jennifer Read says of a potential spill.
In 2010 we saw it firsthand, when Enbridge’s Line 6 pipeline ruptured in Marshall, Michigan, sending nearly a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
The spill contaminated nearly 30 miles of the river, harming wildlife and forcing the evacuation of dozens of homes. In the end it cost more than $1 billion to clean it up.
The fallout also put a spotlight on Enbridge’s Line 5, a 68-year-old dual pipeline carrying propane and crude oil under the Straits of Mackinac, between Michigan’s two peninsulas.
The line became the center of controversy, with many environmental activists voicing concerns that the pipeline is putting a huge chunk of the world’s fresh water supply at risk. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested the company to cease operations by May 12 of this year, citing aging infrastructure.
According to Enbridge, the line supplies 65% of the propane demand in the Upper Peninsula, and the company says it will not stop operating unless ordered by a court:
“Line 5 is operating safely, reliably and is in compliance with the law. The State of Michigan has never presented any concrete evidence to suggest otherwise. The US agency in charge of pipeline safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), has confirmed on multiple occasions that the pipelines are fit for service," Enbridge said in a statement.
More than 10 years later the Kalamazoo River is springing back to life, but the memory of the spill brings a whole new dimension to the debate over pipelines in Michigan.