St. Marys River oil spill highlights Line 5’s greater risk to the Great Lakes, critics say

SAULT STE. MARIE, MI – Environmental activists argue that last week’s gear oil spill in the St. Marys River amounts to a small taste of the potential environmental disaster that could strike the heart of the Great Lakes in case of controversial rupture of an underwater petrochemical pipeline.

As of Monday, public health officials in Michigan and Canada had not yet cleared St. Marys River water for drinking or even body contact following an oil spill. 5,300 gallon gear on June 9 from the Algoma Steel plant in Sault Ste. Mary, Ontario. US Coast Guard officials said the oil spilled in the river was ‘unrecoverable’, while local freshwater ecosystem researchers said a sensor installed downstream detected no spills oil on earth.

The water advisories do not affect the public water supply on either side of the international boundary, as the intakes for these systems are upstream of the steel mill spill site, have officials said.

Meanwhile, critics of the underwater section of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline are pointing to this oil spill in the river that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron as a precursor to what they say is the multi-billion dollar venture that has been ongoing for nearly 70 years. old infrastructure present at the Great Lakes.

But Enbridge officials have long said they are continuing to safely operate the twin pipelines that cross the bottom of Lake Michigan near the Mackinac Bridge, pending decisions from state and federal regulators on the planned the company to build a tunnel under the Strait of Mackinac in which they will divert line 5.

“The continued operation of Line 5 is essential to keep families, businesses, communities and the region moving forward – strong, safe and secure. We will continue to operate the current Line 5 safely and reliably until the Great Lakes Tunnel project is complete,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in an email.

“The Great Lakes Tunnel will encompass a Line 5 replacement section well below the lake bed, eliminating the risk of an anchor strike and virtually eliminating the potential for any Line 5 release into the strait,” said Duffy.

Environmental advocates say damage from oil spills in Great Lakes waters will be long-term problems. This includes last week’s oil spill in the St. Marys River.

“We won’t know for a long time what damage has been done to any of the fisheries and you know the benthic environment of those waters in the Soo,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW), an organization in nonprofit based in Traverse City. who pleads for the closure of line 5.

“I keep imagining that I’m going to get this call about Line 5, and I just don’t know, we’re not going to get many more wake-up calls.”

Authorities said the area most likely to be affected is the north shore of Sugar Island, east of Sault Ste. Married. No signs of oil along the coastline have appeared so far, and no sensors installed along the north shore of the island have detected petrochemicals, said Ashley Moerke, freshwater ecologist and professor. at Lake Superior State University.

Carolyn Krieg, who lives along the north shore of Sugar Island, said she was glad no signs of oil appeared on their property on the day of the spill.

“A guy from the fire department came over and asked if he could walk by the water,” she said. “He saw no sign of it.”

The parallels with the risks of Line 5 in the strait are clear.

The area escaped an oil spill in April 2018 when a ship’s anchor struck and damaged the pipeline. No petrochemicals escaped, and Enbridge installed a series of high-tech cameras throughout the strait to monitor vessel traffic through the US Coast Guard-designated no-anchorage zone.

Line 5 pumps 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, passing under Great Lakes waters between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas at the Strait. At this rate, Line 5 is carrying the amount of oil that spilled into the St. Marys River in about 20 seconds.

The risk to the Great Lakes – the planet’s largest surface freshwater resource – is not worth the financial rewards to Canada’s energy transportation giant, Kirkwood argued.

“It is a unique resource in the world. And we’re just playing Russian roulette here.

Experts say this section of the upper Great Lakes provides drinking water for millions of Americans and Canadians and a spill in the strait could clog up to 720 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan and the lake. Huron. Additionally, a study 2018 commissioned by FLOW showed that an oil spill on Line 5 could result in more than $6 billion in economic impacts and damage to the natural environment.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, Township of D-Bloomfield, said he remains in close contact with Coast Guard officials regarding the oil spill in Sault Ste. He and Marie intend to follow the response closely.

“Spills like this pose a threat to the Great Lakes and surrounding waters — which are an economic engine and an ecological treasure that must be preserved for future generations,” Peters said.

Peters worked to help establish the future Coast Guard National Center of Expertise for the Great Lakes to study freshwater oil spills and develop contingency plans to respond to such an environmental disaster. The facility will be located in Ann Arbor and Sault Ste. Marie and should open at the end of the summer.

The center will be housed in the Soo within the new LSSU Center for Freshwater Research and Education along the shore of the St. Marys River – across the river from where produced last week’s oil spill.

Peters said the new Coast Guard Center “will pave the way for future oil spill response technology and I will continue to work to ensure we have the resources to help protect the Great Lakes against disasters”.

Oil being “unrecoverable” in the St. Marys River last week has long-time Line 5 critics on edge.

“This is the latest event that proves what is at risk and how little we can do once a spill occurs. If Line 5 ruptures, very little oil will be recoverable. Drinking water will be cut off for many communities. Critical wildlife habitat gone for generations. The Great Lakes economy has been destroyed for years,” said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes campaigns manager for the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.

“We can’t continue to allow Enbridge to put record profits on Great Lakes protections, especially when we know we can transition out of Line 5.”

The federation helped bolster line 5 scrutiny with its 2012 Sunken Hazard Reportoccurred two years after Enbridge’s Line 6B burst and spilled more than 800,000 gallons of crude and bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in what was among the largest inland oil spills in the history of the United States.

Critics of Line 5 say other pipelines could be used to transport crude oil and natural gas, as well as rail and truck use. Enbridge officials say this would increase both costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with transporting resources; an expert told Michigan lawmakers that a Line 5 closure would dramatically increase propane prices.

A recently uncovered Federal Court filing showed an expert paid by Enbridge predicted that a Line 5 closure would have minimal impact on gasoline, diesel and jet fuel prices, although that the company says the consultant failed to take into account certain economic factors, such as closed propane processors and oil. refineries.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s easement on the Great Lakes lowlands and ordered the line closed in 2020. This sparked multiple lawsuits between senior state officials and the company.

Late last year, a federal judge ruled that the case between the governor and the Canadian company should remain under federal jurisdiction. Whitmer later dropped her case to instead support state Attorney General Dana Nessel’s lawsuit, which was stayed in state court.

Enbridge filed a motion to send the AG’s lawsuit to federal court, as in Whitmer’s case; a decision remains pending.

The company argues that its plan to build a utility tunnel through the bedrock under the Straits of Mackinac for a replacement section of Line 5 would strengthen protections against environmental damage.

Critics argue that the severity of the accelerating climate crisis means investing in infrastructure for the fossil fuel industry is impractical, especially as a tunnel could be completed the earliest in 2028.

Enbridge says the tunnel is part of its net zero emissions plan.

“As we move forward with this energy modernization infrastructure project, Enbridge remains committed to its plan to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 by investing in renewable energy, modernizing our networks and transporting and delivering these energy resources safely,” Duffy said by email.

Enbridge has already received permits to build the tunnel from environmental regulators in Michigan and the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority. The company is awaiting a decision from the state Civil Service Commission which is expected to consider climate impacts.

Moreover, the tunnel cannot be built without the approval of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has already begun its environmental impact assessment and which should also include the climatic consequences in its analysis.

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Martin E. Berry