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Dire straits

A recent news story underlines the real dangers recent cuts to scientific funding are causing.

Concerns about Enbridge’s Line 5 are not being taken seriously because neither money nor political will are supporting calls for repairs or replacement of the pipe.

The five-mile-wide Straits of Mackinaw separate Lake Huron from Lake Michigan, although a better word might be “join” because the two lakes are really one body of water. Their water levels are equal and currents flow in both directions, depending on weather and water conditions.

The Michigan-Huron basin forms the largest body of fresh water in the world, but unfortunately it is threatened by the aging infrastructure of an oil pipeline lying on the bottom of the lakes.

The two 20-inch pipes of Line 5, now owned by the Calgary-based Enbridge energy company, sit at a depth of 200 feet and run 1,000 kilometres between Superior, Wisconsin and Sarnia, Ontario through the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinaw. The pipeline also runs underground through Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, areas of outstanding natural beauty with a tourist economy of at least $800 million annually, and also home to numerous bodies of water.

The pipe was built in 1953, but although its capacity was increased by 50,000 barrels a day in 2013, only the pumping stations were upgraded. The actual pipeline has remained unchanged.

It carries 540,000 barrels (more than 23 million gallons) a day and we can’t actually say what substances are represented in that total: Enbridge deals in a lot of energy and it could be oil, it could be gas, it could be diluted bitumen from fracking. Enbridge says it carries only light crude but doesn’t officially confirm this.

Enbridge claims that Line 5 has never had a spill, but Line 6, which lies near the Kalamazoo River, adjacent to Line 5’s territory, has had serious breaches including a six-foot gash in 2010 where more than 800,000 gallons of oil spilled 35 miles downstream. The cleanup cost $1.2 billion and took three years.

Line 5 is 62 years old, although when it was built it was intended to last 50 years. Enbridge won’t comment publicly on its maintenance schedule but the company’s public relations department insists that no spills would be acceptable. In 2013, however, the National Wildlife Federation did a dive to inspect the pipe. It is supposed to have supports every 75 feet but many of those braces are missing or buried by debris, because the area’s violent currents mean the lake bottom has shifted. The Michigan state government has passed legislation requiring Enbridge to assess the pipe’s safety and to carry enough insurance to mitigate any environmental disaster a rupture might cause. But campaigners are still hoping that the aging pipeline will be replaced with an alternate means of transporting the oil, and ultimately that the oil will be replaced with cleaner, safer forms of energy.

The case for replacing Line 5 is supported by a study done by the University of Michigan Water Center. The simulation examines the currents in the Straits of Mackinaw, the volume of oil carried through the pipeline, and what would happen if the pipe ruptured. A leak in the Straits of Mackinaw would carry oil in both directions, into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and the oil would both sink to the bottom and float on the surface: an environmental disaster.

Wildlife would suffer; vegetation would be wiped out; aquatic life would be devastated. There is not enough Dawn detergent to save all the waterfowl at risk.

All the information we have regarding the dangers of the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinaw comes from U.S. sources, which is kind of unusual. Canada used to lead the continent in environmental research but our scientists have been silenced by cuts in their funding and political pressure to prevent environmental alarm. The state of Michigan is asking for our help to prevent disaster, and that is so unusual that we will ignore that call at our peril.

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