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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Ticking Time Bomb

November 3, 2017

I’m beginning to think we need a federal grand jury to probe what’s behind the dealings between Calvary-based Enbridge Energy, our state, and federal government over oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing Michigan.

There’s certainly more immediately at risk to Great Lakes residents than the Washington-based grand jury probe being run by a former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate alleged Russian interference in the election.

One has to wonder if our government and its regulators are really that inept or is there a scandal lurking between Enbridge Energy, who owns and operates the now infamous Line 5. Line 5 is a 645-mile, 30-inch-diameter oil and gas pipeline that originates in Superior, Wisconsin, travels through Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas between the Straits of Mackinac, and terminates in Sarnia, Ontario. I’ve been researching and writing about this for seven years.

To me, the coincidences of confusion, delays and miscommunication over the pipeline are suspicious and at best would make a good Tom Clancy or David Baldacci mystery thriller book and movie. Only the multitude of disconnected private and government officials make a conspiracy appear unlikely.

Lead actors might well include Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette, as well as one or two others at Enbridge Energy, U.S. and Michigan leaders. Supporting actors could be cast from Michigan lawmakers, lobbyists and others that possibly could stand to benefit and profit from continuance of an oil and gas pipeline. The plot might evolve around terrorists conspiring with the government to destroy the world’s largest supply of surface freshwater in its quest to rise to world power.

The scenes and locations could be Lansing, Washington, and northern Michigan, especially now with the fast approaching “Gales of November” blowing across the Great Lakes and Old Man Winter close behind blowing its freezing temperatures and snows across the Straits creating six to eight-inch sheets of ice impregnable to everyone including the U.S. Coast Guard.

The pool of extras would come from the public whose awareness has grown after 2010 when we experienced the country’s largest surface oil spill near Marshall. The undetected 6-foot break from a similar oil pipeline (Enbridge Line #6) in Tallmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, spilled a million gallons of heavy crude from Canadian tar sands costing $1.2 billion to clean up.

Until then, Enbridge and its pipelines went unnoticed by the public, state officials, regulators, and politicians, often because of lack of transparency and not understanding their responsibilities. They now try to play catch-up to cover up their past negligence and failure of public trust, fiduciary and legal compliance responsibilities.

Late August, Snyder and other top state officials called for the energy giant to immediately repair areas of lost protective coating exposing bare metal on twin underwater oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. After reporting pipeline coating failure found during its inspection, Enbridge admitted it happened earlier and failed to report its discovery.

Now even with numerous investigations and published studies by independent education, government, and non-profit organizations not much has transpired. The most recent recommendation to hire third-party outside researchers to look at the economic and environmental impact on the region ran afoul on the eve of its release when conflicts of interest between authors and Enbridge were discovered.

Could the same conflict of interest charge rise again, potentially damaging another investigation? The 15-person Michigan oil pipeline advisory board appointed by governor recommended to use one of its own members and his university, Michigan Tech, to do a Line 5 Risk Analysis after the state terminated the last contractor for conflicts of interest? The university, its Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC) and its director, Guy Meadows, openly acknowledge its previously conducted research and testing for Enbridge and see no problems.

When asked, Mich Tech’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, Stefanie Sidortsova, quickly reported in the interest of transparency that Enbridge has contributed 5.3% ($740,963) of the GRLC’s $14,172,154 overall sponsored awards portfolio (2012 to current).  Between 1974 and 2002, students were beneficiaries of $79,200 in scholarships funded by Enbridge.

She said Meadows disclosed the university’s previous involvement with Enbridge and contracts prior to being appointed to the advisory board. At that time, she said the State found them to be of no concern.

“In previous interviews, Dr. Meadows has stated that he does not feel beholden to Enbridge and that the company is probably a little nervous about the environmental work he has done throughout his career, but that it is up to the public to decide whether there is a conflict of interest.”

Activists who want to shut down twin 64-year-old oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac hope to get voters to weigh in by signing petitions. The petition circulated by Keep Our Lakes Great would terminate a 1953 easement for Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipelines and require the company to no longer transport crude oil through them. The group announced on October 28 on Facebook that it had fallen short of the required number of signatures and it’s likely it will challenge the 180-day law in court. https://www.facebook.com/KeepOurLakesGreat/

“The committee raised just $3,000 through late July and seems to be a long shot to qualify barring a major push by environmental organizations,” observes Emeritus CMU Political Science Professor Jim Hill. “Not likely to make it.”

Hill and I offered three public policy considerations to the Governor’s Task Force several years ago. The suggestions ranged from the creation of an unbiased third-party environmental and economic assessment report, a new agreement with Enbridge addressing insurance and surety requirements to protect state taxpayers, and assurance Enbridge can pay for a Straits clean-up by establishing and funding a state-controlled contributions fund, similar to the Michigan Land Trust.

Washington-based investigative journalist Spencer Chumbley has been one of many from across the globe that have investigated and written about Enbridge and its Pipeline #5 crossing the Straits.

Chumbley’s 2015 account (revised in 2016) reveals how he went to Michigan to investigate the situation and found the research alarming. He concluded, “if just one of the pipelines ruptured, it would result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of oil—and that’s if Enbridge, the company that owns them, is able to fix the pipeline immediately.

U of M research scientist Dave Schwab says, “I can’t imagine another place in the Great Lakes where it’d be more devastating to have an oil spill.”

Schwab created six animation models working with the National Wildlife Federation to illustrate what would happen if Line 5 ruptured at the northern, middle and southern end of the Straits — both at times when the water is flowing into Lake Michigan and when it’s flowing into Lake Huron. His projection was for a 1 million-gallon oil spill lasting 12 hours.

Chumbley, a writer and filmmaker, says Enbridge insists the pipelines are safe. He points out that Enbridge does not have a particularly inspiring record, with more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, totaling 6.8 million gallons of spilled oil. In 2010, its pipeline 6B ruptured in the Kalamazoo River.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_HWXbTyh9A

Since 2010, various special interests continue to draw public attention finding public support, but mostly vague responses from those who have to power to make changes.

In late June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette called for a comprehensive plan for the closure of Line 5 with little further word. Gov. Snyder created a now expired Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board that included Schuette as co-chair “to help preserve and protect Michigan’s environment including our lakes, rivers and other world-class resources”. Some observers, saw them as political dodges to minimize them as campaign issues in the last and upcoming state elections.

While litigation of one sort or another could be a course of action, some worry there’s no guarantee a court decision would provide their desired outcome and might damage efforts to close Pipeline #5 across the Straits of Mackinac.

At present, there appears to be no one with the clout and funds to initiate a petition drive like when Michigan United Conservation Clubs and others established the Michigan Beverage Container Act of 1976 and created the 10-cent deposit on beer, soft drinks, carbonated and other containers to conserve energy and reduce litter.

Continued apathetic and non-responsive governance will not remove the potential ticking time bomb hidden in the deep blue waters near the Mackinac Bridge. Action, not political posturing, will be the only way to stop the clock.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

November 2, 2017 · Filed under Winter

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Nov 3, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Tempting typo – Calvary/Calgary – this goes without saying, yet we must keep saying it: those pipes are going to bust inevitably. This is proven by any cursory glance at tectonic subduction, volcanic activity, sub-tropical storm potential, aging bridges, seawalls, roads, any pressure buildup of organic or manmade origin that will erode or erupt at some indeterminate point. What seems never addressed is the logic behind stalling. Insurance and government agencies via taxation already implemented pay for repairs whereas maintenance is out of pocket. Simple: wait for it to break, then let the guys in finance pay for it. Then we’ll be seeing signs like “Make the Straits Great Again”. Procrastination R Us. Praise to Ken for keeping this looming disaster palpable.

  • 2 Bill Barker // Nov 10, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    I have been urging Bill Schuette to act on this for a number of years, just about every time I see him and talk to him. But, the lines should not be shut down, Canada and the Upper Peninsula need them, BUT they are overdue for immediate replacement. The same problem for the crossing of the St. Clair River to Sarnia multiplied because a break would compromise Detroit’s water supply, but I understand more difficult to address because it involves Ontario and the US and Canadian federal governments, but looking in to that is if anything more urgent.

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