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Environmentalists say Enbridge tunnel risky

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Mackinac Bridge spans the Mackinac Straits. The 65 year old pair of oil and gas pipelines known as Enbridge Line 5 lies on the bottom of the straits.

A Canadian company will turn in a report tomorrow outlining whether it thinks a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac is a feasible option for its pipeline. A tunnel was suggested by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Enbridge owns and operates a pair of 65 year old oil and gas pipelines known as Line 5. It lies on the bottom of the Straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. According to the Detroit News, Enbridge is expected to say a tunnel 300 feet underground is feasible.

Environmental groups disagree. Several are part of the larger group Oil and Water Don’t Mix. They also question what benefit it would be to Michigan. Jim Lively heads up Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

He says, “The oil that’s going through Line 5 is going straight through Michigan, right through the Great Lakes on its way to Canadian refineries all the way to Montreal and Quebec. And essentially, if we didn’t have a Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, we would be just fine. So, we don’t need a tunnel. It’s a Canadian tunnel. It’s a tunnel for Canada."

Enbridge says Line 5 is important to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It supplies some of the liquid propane that many homes and businesses use for heat.

Lively says propane could be shipped in by truck, rail, or a four-inch liquid propane pipeline from Wisconsin.

“It’s ridiculous to assume that the only way we can get propane is through a Canadian oil pipeline. There are many ways and they’ve been outlined in the Governor’s report that came out last fall. We just haven’t taken any action to implement them,” he said.

Enbridge also argues that Line 5 supplies oil to a refinery in Detroit. Lively refutees that argument. 

“Regarding the Marathon refinery in Detroit, that is primarily a heavy crude oil refinery which (heavy crude) is not coming through Line 5. Enbridge has guaranteed that Line 5 will only carry light crude. So, we know that it’s just a minor amount of oil that they are using in Marathon and they could be easily be replaced by some of the other pipelines that are coming in to Detroit.”

When asked whether a privately funded tunnel would that make a difference to him, Lively doesn't budge from his position.

"You know, I guess it’s important who pays for it, but I think it’s still important that we consider why we would allow a foreign country to move their oil through our Straits of Mackinac. And, constructing a tunnel that is maybe safer, but not necessary, we need to ask why we would do that,” he said.

Enbridge has already been caught in misleading statements about the condition of Line 5. And recently the pipeline was dented by a cargo ship dragging its anchor along the bottom of the Mackinac Straits.

Enbridge was also responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.

While a tunnel is proposed as a safer alternative than leaving the pipeline in the water, a retired chemical engineer, Gary Street, says there are risks to a tunnel as well.

Here’s why: One of the proposals is to make the tunnel available to other utilities, including electric lines and natural gas lines along with a rebuilt Line 5 segment. Street says natural gas lines have a history of leaking.

“It’s a confined space. You have the possibility, the strong possibility with leakage of an ignition source. We always assume that there’s an ignition source such as static electricity or perhaps a bearing that’s running hot in a blower. And, of course, you have air. If you have those three components and you have the right concentration, the right mix, you’re going to have a fire or possibly even an explosion,” he said.

Street says even if there’s no natural gas pipe, 20 percent of the time Line 5 transports natural gas liquid containing propane and butane, the fuel in a Bic lighter.

“Which are also very, very flammable. So, during that 20 percent of the time that they’re transporting the natural gas liquid, the issue is still there,” Street said.

A request to interview Enbridge –a sponsor of Michigan Radio-- was declined because the pipeline company did not want to talk about the tunnel until it turned in its report to the state.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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