Enbridge Oil Pipeline Under Great Lakes a Ticking Time Bomb

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are threatened by an oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. The aging pipeline is owned by Enbridge, the tar sands pipeline giant that recently spilled one million gallons of crude oil into Michigan's waters.

09-21-2010 // Jeff Alexander
Straits of Mackinac

Far below the azure surface of the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan, an aging pipeline carries up to 20 million gallons of crude oil daily through the heart of the Great Lakes.

The fact that the pipeline is lying, unsecured, on the bottom of the Straits — where Lake Michigan flows into Lake Huron — is alarming. A leak in the 57-year-old pipeline could poison the source of drinking for millions of people and devastate wildlife in four of the five Great Lakes: Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario.

What makes the location of the Lakehead Line 5 pipeline more alarming is that Enbridge Inc., the Canadian energy giant with a spotty safety record, owns it. Enbridge had 93 reportable oil spills in 2008 alone, according to government records.

"The thought of Enbridge operating old oil pipelines in the Great Lakes is unsettling, to say the least," said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center. "The pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, which was installed when Dwight Eisenhower was president, is a ticking time bomb."

In July, a section of Enbridge’s Lakehead pipeline in southern Michigan ruptured, bleeding more than one million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Some of that oil is thought to have come from the controversial tar sands reserves in northern Alberta.

Enbridge’s Lakehead system is part of a vast and growing web of pipelines that are increasingly carrying especially dirty oil from tar sands in Canada to the United States. Tar sands oil extraction has devastated biologically rich boreal forests, poisoned nearby rivers and killed wildlife.

To address concerns about its Lakehead system, Enbridge is seeking permission to install 10 anchors on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac to better secure the pipeline.

National Wildlife Federation, along with several other conservation groups, want government officials to make Enbridge shut down and flush that pipeline before doing any work. Flushing the pipeline would test its structural integrity, Buchsbaum said.

Enbridge’s oil pipelines cross the Great Lakes at three locations: The Straits of Mackinac; the St. Clair River (near Sarnia, Ontario); and at the Niagara River, upstream of Buffalo.

Company officials have known since at least 1978 that the pipeline under the St. Clair River has a dent that could compromise its structural integrity.

Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel has downplayed the risk of the dented pipeline leaking. But he said the company would submit a plan by the end of September to repair.

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