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Health, Science and Environment

Enbridge will ignore state deadline for shutdown of Line 5 under Straits of Mackinac

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Environmental Protection Agency

The owner of an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac said Tuesday that it will defy an order from Michigan’s government to shut the line down.

Enbridge’s Line 5 presents an “unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill,” the state said when it set a 180-day timetable -- which expires Wednesday night -- for the company to shut the pipeline down.

A spokesperson for Enbridge said the line is safe, and the state does not have the legal authority to compel the company to stop its operation.

Patty Peek’s house on the north shore of Lake Michigan is about as close as you can get to Line 5 under the Straits. Peek said there are no other homes between her and where the pipeline comes out of the water.

“It’s a lot of coyotes, squirrels, porcupines and eagles that live between me and Enbridge,” she said.

That’s part of why she was hoping the company would follow Michigan’s order to stop operation of the almost 70-year-old pipeline. Peek said a spill would be catastrophic for the region.

“We’re a tourist-based economy,” she said. “If we have no tourism, if we have no beaches, if we don’t have clean water for people to come to, Northern Michigan and the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula is dead.”

Environmental advocates said there have been some close calls already.A ship’s anchor hit the line a few years ago. It dented – but didn’t break – the pipes. And the company told the state last year that the lines have been hit other times, possibly by Enbridge’s own contractors.

Still, Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the state’s order will not stop the company from continuing to pump oil through the Straits.

“We will not stop operating the pipeline, unless we’re ordered by a court or our regulator, which we think is highly unlikely at this point,” Duffy said.

The oil the pipeline moves is crucial to the energy infrastructure of the United States and Canada, he said.

Peek was unmoved. “I’ve heard Enbridge’s points about how we’re all going to freeze to death here in the U.P. because there’s no propane if Line 5 doesn’t exist, but that’s simply not true. There are alternatives,” she said.

The state has a plan to supply propane to the Upper Peninsula if Line 5 shuts down. It’s supported by environmental groups and Native American tribes, but not by Enbridge or a U.P. propane supplier.

Transporting oil by road or rail is both more dangerous and more polluting than moving it through the pipeline, Duffy said.

“Pipelines are the safest way to transport this energy,” said Duffy. “There is no alternative safe method, better method, safer than pipelines.”

He said since the anchor strike, Enbridge has increased monitoring of the straits to ensure shippers know it’s a no-anchor zone.

But Margrethe Kearney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center said there’s an even bigger issue at stake if the company doesn’t comply with the state’s shutdown order: Kearney said that refusal will undermine the rule of law.

“By and large, people in the state of Michigan and businesses in the state of Michigan follow those orders,” Kearney said. “We play by the rules, because we understand if people just ignore the rules, then we all suffer.”

She said if Enbridge disagrees with the state’s order, the company should still follow its instructions and appeal through the legal system.

Kearney said the state is well within its rights to revoke permission for Enbridge to operate Line 5 under the straits. Enbridge said it is ignoring the state’s order because its pipeline’s operation is only under the authority of federal courts and federal regulators.

But the courts and the regulators won’t say much about how the situation might be settled.

The court-appointed mediator trying to resolve the dispute said through a spokesperson that he can’t talk about it because the mediation process is confidential.

And the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration – that’s the federal regulator that Enbridge said it would listen to – said it can’t comment because of the pending litigation.

The Michigan attorney general’s office said it can’t enforce the state’s shutdown deadline without a court order.

Meanwhile, Patty Peek at the northern end of the line’s passage under the Straits of Mackinac, continues to hope the flow of oil gets turned off soon.

"My husband and I have a bag ready to go" if they have to evacuate because of pollutants released from the pipeline, she said. "We just hope we never have to use it."

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