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Two months after Michigan revokes permission to operate Line 5, Enbridge continues pumping

Brett Dahlberg

Today marks two months since Michigan ordered Enbridge to stop pumping oil through a pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. The company has defied the order. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says Enbridge is now trespassing on state land, and the state is going to make the company “disgorge its profits.”

But Enbridge shows no signs of stopping.

At the company’s maritime operations center in Mackinaw City, work continues unabated.

In fact, Lauren Brown said it’s even busier this summer than it was last summer. Brown is a contractor for Enbridge, and she works in Mackinaw City tracking shipping through the Straits.

Brown said last month they tracked 78 ships crossing over Line 5 in a single week-- “That blew our other records out of the water,” she said.

Enbridge staff said observation boats leave from Mackinaw City to check almost every ship that’s approaching Line 5.

An anchor dragging from a ship struck and damaged the pipeline in 2018. Since then, the company has set up systems -- observation boats, infrared cameras, and standardized communications with ship captains -- in an effort to prevent future damage to the line.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WCMU News
Pat Beckman guides an Enbridge observation boat back to the dock in Mackinaw City.

Enbridge staff said they’ve observed nearly 3,500 crossings, and only five or six have raised any alarms.

Enbridge said it’s not aware of any other company taking such extensive measures to secure a pipeline.

But Whitmer has said it’s just a matter of time until the steel structure of the pipeline fails and releases oil into the Straits.

If it does fail, Patty Peek said oil will likely land on her shoreline. Peek lives in the house closest to the spot where Line 5 exits the north shore of the Straits -- about a quarter mile from the pipeline.

Peek said she’s not just worried about her own waterfront.

“It’s beautiful, and I’m really lucky to live here, but also, this is a resource that we have got to protect. … Everyone here depends on it,” she said.

Peek said she’s concerned that Line 5’s path between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron poses a risk to one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems, which spans hundreds of miles of the U.S. Canada border.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WCMU News
Patty Peek stands on the Straits of Mackinac shoreline outside her house near St. Ignace.

And indeed, officials from the U.S. and Canada have been meeting to discuss Michigan’s efforts to shut down Line 5.

The meetings are disclosed in federal court filings. Canada is asking the judge to delay any ruling on Michigan’s order so that the two federal governments can sort things out themselves.

Max Pyziur, a director at the Energy Policy Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., said that’s likely the level where the decision about shutting down the pipeline will get made: either nationally or internationally -- not at the level of an individual state.

“I don’t think Michigan has jurisdiction on the claim that it’s making. It looks like it’s under the various federal authorities that are there.”

Pyziur says untangling exactly which federal authority has the final say could be tricky: among those that have regulatory power over the line are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which itself is a part of the transportation department.

But eventually, Pyziur said, one of those agencies is probably going to get to decide whether Michigan can actually order Enbridge to shut down the pipeline.

Michigan, of course, says it should get the final say. The Straits of Mackinac are in Michigan, after all.

That’s also the opinion of Margrethe Kearney, a staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Grand Rapids.

Kearney said even if Enbridge is expecting that the court will ultimately find Michigan does not have the authority to shut down the flow of oil, the company should not just continue pumping.

“I think it puts the company at risk, because they are essentially disobeying an order from the state government,” Kearney said.

Whatever direction the case goes, legal observers say it might not be resolved for years. And that means millions of gallons of petroleum products could keep flowing under the Straits of Mackinac every day until then.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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