Enviros, tribes call on Whitmer to shut down Line 5 before extreme weather hits, fearing oil spill

By: - November 6, 2019 6:54 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

A coalition of more than a dozen Michigan organizations have sent a formal request to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, urging her to take immediate action to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline ahead of potentially hazardous winter weather. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Zeeland | Nick Manes

The Oct. 25 letter, which was made public Wednesday, calls attention to the “serious threat” a Line 5 rupture would pose during conditions of high waves and ice — conditions that are commonplace in the Straits of Mackinac during fall and winter months, and have the capability of greatly hindering oil recovery efforts in the event of a spill. The letter states that current safeguards are dangerously inadequate.

The call to action is signed by representatives of 14 environmental, conservation, civic, tribal and business groups; including the National Wildlife Federation, League of Women Voters Michigan, Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority and Great Lakes Business Network.

Whitmer’s team is reviewing the letter, said spokesperson Tiffany Brown.

Last week, the Court of Claims ruled for Enbridge in a lawsuit against the state. A judge struck down Attorney General Dana Nessel’s legal opinion that legislation to construct a tunnel around Line 5 is unconstitutional. Nessel has appealed the decision.

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Signees and supporters of the letter held a telephone press conference Wednesday morning.

The formal request specifically asks Whitmer to secure an immediate commitment from Enbridge that the company will halt oil transport through the Straits when there are waves more than 3.3 feet high or winds higher than 18 miles per hour.

“These are the conditions cited by the Coast Guard which render oil spill response particularly dangerous and ineffective,” said Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the coalition Oil & Water Don’t Mix. “If Enbridge refuses to cooperate with these new proposed safety measures, we think the governor should use her emergency powers and other legal authorities to implement them.”

The U.S. Coast Guard would act as the first responder to an oil spill in the Straits. The letter calls on Whitmer to work with the agency to establish safer restrictions on oil transport in inclement weather.

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Michigan’s current agreement with Enbridge, brokered in 2017 by former Gov. Rick Snyder, states that Enbridge must halt oil transport in the Straits when waves reach a median height of 8 feet for 60 minutes straight.

“This fall, we have already seen waves in the Great Lakes reach 14 feet or more on several occasions,” McBrearty said.

Aubrey Maccoux-LeDuc, an environmental specialist in the Bay Mills Indian Community’s biological services department, said Enbridge cannot be trusted to adequately monitor and maintain its pipelines, let alone handle an oil spill in inclement weather.

“Third-party analysis has shown … that the company is unprepared to handle an oil spill in the Great Lakes, especially if it occurred in windy weather, or was complicated by winter ice cover,” Maccoux-LeDuc said.

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For its part, Enbridge doesn’t appear to support preemptive Line 5 shutdowns and a spokesperson stressed that the company can respond to weather-related problems.

“Enbridge’s focus is first and foremost on prevention,” Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email. “In the unlikely event of a winter incident Enbridge has the training, the people and resources to respond quickly. We have equipment positioned near the Straits that is designed for response in winter conditions. And we have practiced our winter response plans with the U.S. Coast Guard.”

When asked to respond to the letter’s assertion that the equipment is only designed for waves up to 3.3 feet and winds up to 18 mph, Duffy said that Enbridge “would always have a response regardless of wave heights.”

Mike Shriberg, the regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, served on Snyder’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board when the former Republican governor was weighing options for Line 5. Shriberg says the standards requested in the Oct. 25 letter were also recommended to Snyder by the advisory board back in 2017, but Snyder “ignored that” and “followed the politics and the dollars” rather than the science.

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“Gov. Whitmer has an opportunity to turn that around right now, simply by choosing science over politics,” Shriberg said.

The groups are further concerned about Enbridge’s ability and willingness to pay for oil spill cleanup costs, citing a new state-commissioned report that casts doubt on whether Enbridge’s financial assurances are sound. Enbridge has denied the report’s claim that the company could evade paying for an oil spill.

“We expect action from Gov. Whitmer on this, because we know that she cares about protecting the Great Lakes and protecting those whose safety would be on the line in the event of a Line 5 pipeline rupture during dangerous conditions,” McBrearty said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.