Mich. (AP) - A freshwater channel that separates Michigan’s upper and lower
peninsulas is a premier Midwestern tourist attraction and a photographer’s
delight, offering spectacular vistas of two Great Lakes, several islands and
one of the world’s longest suspension bridges.
But nowadays the
Straits of Mackinac is drawing attention for something that is out of sight
and usually out of mind, and which some consider a symbol of the dangers
lurking in the nation’s sprawling web of buried oil and natural gas
the bottom of the waterway at depths reaching 270 feet are two 20-inch pipes
that carry nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil daily. They are part of
the 1,900-mile Lakehead network, which originates in North Dakota near the
Canadian border. A segment known as Line 5 slices through northern Wisconsin
and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before ducking beneath the Straits of
Mackinac and winding up in Sarnia, Ontario.
The pipes were laid
in 1953. They’ve never leaked, according to the system’s owner, Enbridge
Energy Partners LP, which says the lines are in good shape and pose no
But a growing
chorus of activists and members of Congress is demanding closer scrutiny as
stepped-up production in North Dakota’s Bakken region and Canada’s Alberta
tar sands boosts the amount of oil coursing through pipelines crossing the
Concern has risen
in the past year following serious spills in Arkansas and North Dakota, and
as the government weighs the proposed Keystone pipeline project that would
stretch from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The issue is especially sensitive
in Michigan, where another Enbridge line ruptured in 2010, spewing more than
840,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River and a tributary creek.
The Straits of
Mackinac epitomizes a potential worst-case scenario for a pipeline accident:
an iconic waterway, ecologically and economically significant, that could be
fiendishly hard to clean up because of swift currents and deep water that’s
often covered with ice several months a year.
straits link Lakes Huron and Michigan and flow near Mackinac Island, which
is famed for its horse-drawn carriages and fudge shops. Several villages
draw drinking water from the straits and cargo freighters and passenger
ferries use it as a passageway. Sport anglers chase salmon and trout, while
commercial crews harvest whitefish and perch for restaurants.
activists attended a rally to protest the pipeline last summer. Local
residents haven’t paid it much attention over the years, but a packed crowd
grilled Enbridge representatives at a community meeting this month.
“It’s a huge
pipeline carrying oil in one of the most ecologically beneficial and
sensitive places in the world,” said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the
National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. “A massive oil spill
there would have dire and irreversible consequences.”
second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Michigan Sens. Carl
Levin and Debbie Stabenow sent a letter of concern to the federal Pipeline
and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in December. Agency head
Cynthia Quarterman said Enbridge has agreed to step up its inspections of
the Lakehead system since the Kalamazoo River spill.
Now, line 5’s
segment beneath the straits is getting extra attention.
reached an agreement with Michigan Technological University to deploy a
newly developed “autonomous underwater vehicle” to provide digital images of
the pipeline eight times in the next two years. The device resembles a
7-foot-long missile with a tiny, whirring propeller and will be fitted with
sonar devices, cameras and computers.
probably isn’t capable of detecting cracks, but “never before have you been
able to see this kind of detail,” said Guy Meadows, a director of the
university’s Great Lakes Research Center.
Wildlife Federation maintains it’s time to replace the lines. The group
posted a short video taken by divers that appears to show broken supports
and sections suspended above the bottom or covered with debris. Critics also
complain the company won’t release enough data from its inspections of the
pipelines and note that above-ground sections of Line 5 have ruptured in
numerous spots on land, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons.
But Guthrie said
the underwater section is sound.
operating there for decades and operating safely,” she said.
The U.S. Coast
Guard has conducted spill-response exercises in the straits the past three
years. Some have taken place in winter to test technology for tracing oil
beneath ice, said Steve Keck, a contingency specialist based in Sault Ste.
Dean Reid, planning
commission chairman in Mackinac County who organized the community meeting,
said locals needed more information about the pipelines, which many didn’t
know existed until recently.
“We tend to take
for granted what’s here,” Reid said, “and sometimes don’t know what’s here.”