How Two Old Pipelines Put the Great Lakes (and its Birds) at Risk

Environmentalists' worry over a decades-old oil pipeline running under Michigan's water has inspired them to keep closer tabs on local wildlife.

This past fall members of Michigan’s Petoskey Regional Audubon Society joined the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch to conduct their first-ever survey of the waterbirds migrating through the Straits of Mackinac, a five-mile-wide strip of water that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. “Really, the ducks and shorebirds are what we’re concerned about the most,” says PRAS president Darrell Lawson. “Because of Line 5, we decided we should start studying the waterfowl migration.”

Until four years ago few people in Michigan knew that a pair of oil pipelines, part of a system called Line 5, runs across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, carrying more than 500,000 barrels of light crude and natural gas liquids each day. But in 2012 the National Wildlife Federation released a report that raised questions about the integrity of the pipelines, which date back to 1953, and warned of the risk of an oil spill in the Straits, where strong underwater currents, high waves, and winter ice could impede response efforts. Since then concern has grown about the wisdom of relying on less than an inch of old steel as the only barrier between the Great Lakes and thousands of gallons of oil.

“The potential for a catastrophic oil spill . . . this is the kind of scenario we just can’t fathom,” says Liz Kirkwood, the executive director of For Love of Water, or FLOW, one of a number of groups that have created the coalition Oil and Water Don’t Mix to stop the flow of oil through Line 5. Enbridge, which operates Line 5, has insisted that the pipeline is in excellent condition. But the company has baggage in the state: In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and spilled more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

The state government has slowly been taking steps toward making a decision on how to proceed on the Line 5 question, including appointing an advisory board that is commissioning reviews of the risks of a spill and potential alternatives to the pipeline.

But FLOW and other groups believe the state should take interim measures—such as stopping or reducing the flow of oil—in the meantime. “The state of Michigan and the Attorney General’s office have to satisfy their legal duty as public trustees,” argues Kirkwood, “and make sure that our waters aren’t put in harm’s way.” (To add your voice to the call to decommission Line 5, visit