The Public Trust Issue Of The Century

Andy Cochrane
Jul 30 · 3 min read

The Great Lakes supply drinking water to forty million people, provide crucial habitat for a dozen endangered species, and support a handful of multi-billion dollar industries including outdoor recreation, agriculture, mining, shipping, and tourism. Yet, the State of Michigan has turned a blind eye toward an aging 64-year-old pipeline under the Great Lakes. It’s the disaster of a century waiting to happen.

The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, at the center of the Great Lakes. Five miles wide with currents ten times stronger than the Niagara Falls, oil leaked in the Straits could cover hundreds of miles of shoreline, halt shipping lanes, saturate wetlands, fill marinas, and ruin the water that millions of people drink daily.

Line 5 was built in 1953 and engineered to be safe for 50 years–it’s now 64 years old. Every day 23 million gallons of oil flow through it. Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns the aging pipe, has confirmed numerous places have protective coating missing yet has no plans to replace them. Enbridge is already responsible for the largest land-based oil spill in US history and had over 1,000 spills from 1999 to 2013, leaking 7.4 million gallons in total.

The land that Line 5 runs along in the Straits is held in public trust. Legally, if private interest is threatening public interest, the State has a duty to mitigate it. Citizens are entitled to protected beaches, navigable waterways and harbors, drinkable water, wetlands, rivers, fisheries and wildlife habitat. The State of Michigan, as the trustee, is accountable for managing public trust properties like the Straits of Mackinac.

Over two thirds of Michigan residents polled support shutting it down Line 5, yet the state government hasn’t made many changes. Liz Kirkwood, environmental lawyer and Executive Director of FLOW, explained “Enbridge is an oil transportation company that uses Michigan as a shortcut. Michigan doesn’t get much out of it. While Michigan assumes all the risk of a spill, residents receive about 5% of the crude oil transported in Line 5. That’s it.“

Dave Schwab is a hydrodynamics expert who has spent his career at the NOAA Great Lakes Research Laboratory and the University of Michigan Water Center. He invented the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System, the tool that sailors, weather analysts, and the US Coast Guard all rely on for wave, current, and water level information. Dave simulated over 800 spills that up to 150 miles of shoreline and hundreds of square miles of water covered in oil.

Desmond Berry, the Natural Resources Manager of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is worried about the local and statewide impact. “Nearly half the tribe’s commercially harvested fish come from the Straits area–a Line 5 leak would devastate the Tribal way of life for years to come. The State’s $38 billion tourism industry would be impacted and the State’s $7 billion commercial fishing industry would be devastated too.”

Larry Bell is the owner of Bell’s Brewery based in Kalamazoo that employs 520 people and sells almost a half million barrels of beer every year. It’s the 14th largest brewery in the country. Bell’s has a subsidiary brewery in the Upper Peninsula that would be affected directly. “There are hundreds of local municipalities that draw their water from the area. These communities would struggle to find other water sources. Property values would plummet. Tourism would decline quickly. These communities rely on those dollars. It wouldn’t take long for the tax base to erode.”

Lisa Wozniak is the Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and is delightfully blunt “clean, safe drinking water is not a partisan issue. It’s a basic human right. Everyday citizens want clean water and air. They want to trust the water that comes out of their taps. They want their children to be healthy. Enbridge has asserted that, if properly maintained, Line 5 could safely operate in perpetuity. It is objectively absurd to suggest that a metal pipe–subject to the laws of the universe–will never rust or otherwise breakdown.”

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