Special Report: Investigating Line 5

The Straits pipelines have been there since 1953.

They’re part of a network owned by Canadian energy delivery company Enbridge.

The company says the pipelines are in pristine condition, but environmental groups worry about their age.

“There’s a 62-year-old pipeline that’s resting in the middle of the Straits of Mackinac.”

It’s part of a pipeline that carries light crude oil and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario.

Many refer to it as “the pipeline”, but what’s actually under the Straits are two 20 inch pipes that run just to the west of the Mackinac Bridge.

The safety of those lines has been under intense scrutiny since 2010’s Enbridge spill disaster downstate near Marshall.

“It took them 17 hours to respond and it resulted in a million gallons of heavy crude oil, tar sands, being spilled along a 35 mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River,” said Liz Kirkwood.

The fear is something similar could happen in the Straits, as demonstrated in this simulation video provided by the University of Michigan.

“Imagine what a catastrophic spill like that would result in, in the middle of the Great Lakes. In the heart,” said Kirkwood.

Liz Kirkwood is the executive director of Traverse City-based For Love of Water.

She says that kind of scenario would be disastrous, not only to the ecosystem, but also to the people who make a living in the area.

“There would be no water. It would cut off all ferry service,” said Kirkwood. “It would literally decimate the economy of Northern Michigan.”

Chris Shepler, who runs Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry agrees.

“When tourism is such a big part of what we do here in our state and recreation as well, it would be a catastrophe,” said Shepler.

He wants assurances from the state and from Enbridge things are being done to keep line 5 spill free.

“To make sure that there’s no chance that anything’s going to happen and to make sure that we don’t have an incident like we had in Kalamazoo.”

Jason Manshum, a community relations manager with Enbridge, says the company’s priority is the safe operation of Line 5.

“It has been incident free for over 60 years,” said Manshum. “We monitor the line via our control center with humans sitting, monitoring every inch of the pipeline. We have a computer system as well that can alert an alarm to shut down the line if there’s any sort of abnormality we may need to go out and investigate.”

He says the company has assets in place on both sides of the Straits ready to take action, if needed.

And they constantly practice for what he calls an unlikely occurrence.

“We have a response tactical plan that is reviewed and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard,” said Manshum.

Steven Keck is a contingency preparedness specialist with the Coast Guard.

He says they would also respond immediately.

“If it’s a teaspoon or a hundred thousand gallons, the Coast Guard’s going to respond to it in the same manor,” said Keck. “We practice to respond in that manor and that’s how we’re going to respond regardless of the size of the spill.”

Manshum says the condition of the actual steel on the pipes is as good now as it was when it was built in the 1950’s.

“The mechanical components that really help it run, that push the product through the pipe, that is continuously being replaced with new technology and new pieces.”

Despite the preparedness and assurances of safety, environmental groups are not satisfied with the information the public can access about Line 5.

They say they’re not getting the same data as state and federal regulatory agencies.

“This is a huge issue and the public deserves to know,” said Kirkwood.

But Enbridge says they have been forthcoming by holding town hall meetings and providing information to anyone who wants to know.

“We are more than happy to sit down with folks and go through our safety and inspection data,” said Manshum.

But for some environmentalists, that’s not enough.

They want the pipelines in the Straits to disappear altogether.

“A decommissioning of a 62 year old infrastructure that will fail. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when,” said Kirkwood.

Last year, the state did set up a task force to investigate the pipelines and look at the state’s preparedness for oil spills.

The goal is to set up a website for people who have questions and concerns about the pipeline.

The task force is still reviewing information given to them by Enbridge.

A report is expected sometime later this year.