In spite of the brutal heat, a large and highly energized crowd attended the Oil and Water Don’t Mix Rally at the northern foot of the Mackinac Bridge on Sunday. Busloads of concerned citizens arrived from around the state, including Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and even one from Green Bay, Wisconsin. They gathered to protest the proposed increase in volume pumped through “line 5” of the Enbridge pipeline crossing the straits under the Mighty Mac. The current capacity of the sixty year-old pipeline is 490,000 barrels a day, and the company is poised to add another 50,000 to that load. Gary Street, a retired DOW chemical engineer and advisor for one the rally’s sponsors, Freshwater Future, said that a 10 percent bump in volume will exert a 20 percent increase in pressure on the aging system. He recently told the Petoskey News: “That’s alarming. I’m really concerned about their integrity, and now you’re going to increase pressure on those lines.”
The weekend gathering was organized by an environmental group called TC350, the Traverse City chapter of 350.org, an organization whose goal is “to take personal and societal action to combat climate change by reducing CO2 emissions to 350 ppm”. Just a partial list of the rally’s sponsors include: Michigan Land Use Institute, The National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, Freshwater Future, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Western Michigan Environmental Action Council, Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands, Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, FLOW the Water, Circle of Blue, and Food and Water Watch.
P. David Warren, who arrived on a bus from Traverse City, said “I’m circulating the ban fracking petition, and this is the same issue”. He was talking about a ballot iniative called the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan which would prohibit the controversial practice of hydro-fracking in the state. The group must gather just over a quarter million valid signatures between April 12th and October 1st of this year to qualify for the 2014 ballot. They hope to collect 320,000 in that time.
Warren explained he is from the Occupy Traverse City group and they, along with many others from the community, felt this was an important opportunity to be heard on the issue of protecting the Great Lakes. He said that on the day prior to the rally, he had a conversation with one of his fellow Occupy members who had witnessed an unmarked truck spraying a disgusting smelling chemical on gravel roads in nearby Benzie County. That fluid turned out to be highly toxic oil field brine, loaded with carcinogens — the types of chemicals typically used in hydro-fracking. Oil and gas companies unload this toxic slurry as “brine water” on unsuspecting communities, without disclosing the deadly chemical cocktail they contain. How widespread this practice is in Michigan is yet to be determined.
Northwest Michigan may appear to be a pristine wilderness dotted with charming little towns to the traveler, even kitschy roosters atop cafes sport old glory. But the region is home to a long history of environmental horrors. On route to the rally, many of the buses drove past the upscale development of Bay Harbor, just a few miles west of Petoskey. It’s a sprawling and breathtakingly posh community overlooking the rolling hills sloping down to sparkling Little Traverse Bay. Yet, Bay Harbor sits atop one of the most toxic chemical contamination sites in the state. Development of the property and its new harbor for the multi-million dollar yachts of its residents kicked-up dormant toxins that, when mixed with Great Lakes water, produced a toxic sludge called “cement kiln dust leachate” from the waste of an old cement factory on the site. The caustic liquid, dangerously high in heavy metals and hazardous to humans, was initially disposed of through transport to a Traverse City facility for processing, but that cost was apparently even too high for the wealthy community, so they successfully petitioned the EPA for a local injection well to dispose of the fluids — meaning even more toxins would be injected into the Michigan landside so very close to one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet. (See correction below).
Enbridge insists their safety record on Line 5, also known as the Lakehead Pipeline, is outstanding. Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation begs to differ. She is the author of a report titled Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes. When she took the podium at the rally, she led with the list of significant incidents that have already occurred on the Lakehead Pipeline system. She started by recounting a spill in 1999 in Crystal Falls, Michigan in which 226,000 gallons spilled from line 5. Enbridge disposed of the oil by lighting it on fire. Wallace challenged the crowd to admit if they had heard anything about the incident. She was met with silence. She went on to tick off a litany of spills on the Lakehead system that were hushed:
- July 2002: A pipeline in Itasca County, MN spilled 252,000 gallons of crude oil causing $5.6 million in damages
- Feb. 2003: Monroe County, MI where a 5,460 gallon spill caused a quarter million in damages
- Oct. 2003: Bay County, MI 21,000 gallons of crude spilled
- Jan. 2005: Another Bay County spill of 4,200 gallons
- Jan. 2007: A leak in Wisconsin spilled 50,000 gallons on farmland
- Nov. 2007: Oil and gas from a ruptured line ignited near Clearbrook, MN, killing two workers. Enbridge was fined $2.4 million for failing to follow safety rules.
- Jan. 2010: 126,000 gallons were leaked in Neche, North Dakota
- July 2010: A ruptured pipeline near Marshall, MI dumped one million gallons into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.
- Sept. 2010: a broken pipeline near Chicago spilled 250,000 gallons of oil
- July 2012: In Grand Marsh, WI, a rupture sprayed 50,000 gallons onto a farm, including the home and livestock.
And that’s just a short list of the 80 spills the federal government has documented on the Enbridge Pipeline since 2001, something Wallace derisively referred to as being called “anomalies” by the oil company.
Native American leaders at the rally had little patience with talk of “anomalies”. Cecil Pavlat of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians spoke passionately. He said “We speak, but they don’t listen. Water is the blood of our Earthmother.” Invoking the Anishnabek tradition of tribal leaders thinking seven generations ahead about the impact of their decisions, he warned of the pending crisis with this plea: “If not soon, it will be too late”.
Amy Kerr Hardin
Correction: The Bay Harbor injection well is on hold as the township allows the leachate to be processed and the water to be returned to Little Traverse Bay. If a test for mercury levels conducted on July 1, 2013 comes back too high, then they may opt for using the injection well. Article.