Enbridge pipeline targeted by activists concerned over potential spill in Great Lakes

A 64-year-old Canadian oil pipeline that runs through the United States is in the crosshairs of environment groups.

Line 5, owned by Calgary-based Enbridge, transports 540,000 barrels of light crude, synthetic crude and natural gas per day between Michigan and Ontario and supplies more than 50 per cent of the state's propane demands.

The pipeline is a key link between Alberta and refineries out east, but pipeline opponents say the location of a section of the pipe through the Straits of Mackinac — a narrow waterway connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron — is putting the safety of 20 per cent of the world's fresh surface water at risk.

'An unacceptable risk'

Liz Kirkwood, the executive director of Michigan-based advocacy group For Love of Water, says the group would like to see the pipeline decommissioned at the straits portion to protect the Great Lakes from a potentially "catastrophic" oil spill.

"They pose an unacceptable risk given that they're described as the worst possible place in the Great Lakes for a spill," she told the Calgary Eyeopener Monday.

Kirkwood argues the pipeline, which twins at the site of the straits, does not have adequate support, is encrusted with invasive mussels and the original engineering of the pipeline didn't properly factor in the wild currents of the Great Lakes.

"Given the unacceptable risk and the magnitude of harm, where over 700 miles of coastal communities are at risk for their economy, drinking water, destruction of wildlife, we are asking for the State Michigan to enforce the legal agreement with Enbridge and decommission this pipeline," she said.

The pipeline rests on state-owned, protected waters and was originally authorized as a conditional easement by the state in 1953. 

Kirkland says Enbridge has been violating the legal agreement over the past four years by having a number of insufficient anchor supports, missing external pipeline coating, inadequate emergency response plans and deficient liability insurance.

"The state of Michigan is the public trustee of the waters and their duties are paramount. Interests of the public must always supercede that of private interests," she said.

Enbridge confident in pipeline integrity

Brad Shamla, the vice-president of U.S. operations at Enbridge, says the company is confident in the integrity of the pipeline and its fitness for service. He says that section of Line 5 has been rigorously maintained throughout its lifetime and is the company's most inspected piece of pipe. 

"The [pipeline] was built to very high standards; seamless pipe, very thick-walled pipe, it was designed such that the pressure across that segment would be on the lowest point on the pipeline system," he said.

The portion of the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac has never experienced a leak in its more than 60 years of operation.

Despite that success, Kirkland argues there have been 29 known spills on the land-based portions of Line 5 and the company is responsible for one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history, which occurred in 2010 in Michigan.

'No leak is acceptable'

Shalma says that leak, which dumped millions of litres of oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary, changed Enbridge for the better.

"The leak that occurred near Marshall, Mich., was transformational for our company and we have changed significantly and have improved," Shamla said. "No leak is acceptable at Enbridge."

Despite the opposition, Shamla says the company has no plans to alter the way it transports oil and gas through Michigan.

"We're in this for the long haul. We're one of North America's largest pipeline operators and we take safety very, very seriously," he said.

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener