Don’t lose sleep over the Keystone pipeline. We have our own oil pipeline worries here in the Great Lakes watershed.
Keystone, the pipeline proposed to run beneath American soil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, is on hold because it has been declared an unacceptable threat to the environment by the Obama administration and some of the states through which it would pass.
But there is no hold up on pipelines that pose environmental threats to the Great Lakes, particularly Michigan and Huron. Expansion of pipelines carrying crude oil from Canada through Wisconsin and Michigan, under tributaries to the lakes and even in the lakes themselves, is advancing unabated.
This is worrisome for two reasons: The oil in these pipes is considered the nastiest, dirtiest and most destructive form of fossil fuel—tar sands oil; and the company pumping it, Enbridge, Inc., of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is a serial violator of federal pipeline regulations that has been responsible for numerous pollution accidents, including one in 2010 in Michigan that has been called the worst inland oil spill ever in the United States.
The two U.S. senators from Michigan, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, put a needed spotlight on this danger to the Lakes last week when they sent the head of the U.S. Transportation Department a letter demanding that he classify underwater pipelines in the Great Lakes region as “offshore” facilities.
The designation is critical because federal law caps liability for pipeline spill cleanup costs at $634 million for onshore facilities, but requires companies operating offshore pipelines to pay all cleanup costs.
The catastrophic spill from an Enbridge pipeline in the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan six years ago reveals the inadequacy of the federal liability limit. Cleaning up that disaster has cost $1.2 billion and the meter is still running.
The federal government needs to be pushed because its environmental regulators seems to have a blind spot where the Great Lakes are concerned. Besides having been slow to react to the devastation wrought by invasive species, they have failed to give the Lakes the level of protection from petroleum pollution they deserve.
Oil spills in Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastal waters can do terrible damage to sea life and recreational economies, of course, but the stakes are even higher in the Great Lakes. Here, where there are no cleansing tides to abet the cleanup process, human health is at risk along with ecosystems and recreational use of the water. More than 30 million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes.
The Lakes are at risk at many points in Wisconsin and Michigan where Enbridge pipelines pass near waterways flowing into Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, but they are most vulnerable in the Straits of Mackinac, where two 20-inch pipelines cross a jagged underwater terrain, including a quarter-mile-wide spot where they are suspended over a canyon 300 feet under the surface.
The 63-year-old pipes carry tar sands oil in a raw form that requires high pressure pumping, increasing the likelihood of a weld or material failure.
Scientists predict that lake currents would carry substantial amounts of crude oil spilled in the Straits south into Lake Michigan to the waters around Beaver Island and Charlevoix, Mich., and east into Lake Huron, the pellucid water of Mackinac Island and even into Georgian Bay in the North Channel. These are some of the most pristine waters on earth.
It is not far fetched to assume that the taint of such a spill could cover all of Lake Michigan, including the water along the Ozaukee County shore.
Enbridge, which has been the subject of more than 30 enforcement actions by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration in the last decade, has announced plans to increase the amount of oil pumped through the Straits of Mackinac pipeline, which is part of the company’s Lakehead system, one of the largest pipeline networks in the world.
Wisconsin’s members of Congress should join the Michigan senators in pushing the federal government to change its classification of Great Lakes pipelines to hold the owner responsible for all of the costs of mitigating damage of an oil spill. The point of this is not just to shield taxpayers from financial costs, but to give the pipeline operator a strong incentive to avoid poisoning our freshwater with tar sands oil.