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Line 5 Pipeline Faces Tuesday Court Date After Judge Orders Temporary Closure


A county judge in Michigan has ordered Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. to shut down its troubled Line 5 pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron until a hearing tomorrow can review the state’s request for a temporary injunction against the 67-year-old line.

If Judge James Jamo grants the request, the pipeline could be shut down indefinitely, The Associated Press reports, in a dispatch republished by the CBC.

A 6.4-kilometre segment of the pipeline “divides into two pipes that lie on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas,” the news agency explains. Earlier in the month, an Enbridge repair crew reported “significant damage” after an anchor support on the east leg below the straits shifted, but the pipeline itself was not breached and no oil spilled into the water. The east leg of the line remained closed, but Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer scorched the company for reopening the western portion with no notice.

“Given the gravity of this matter, I was taken aback to learn the company has unilaterally resumed operation of the west leg without even opportunity for discussion,” she wrote to Enbridge CEO Al Monaco. “At this moment, Enbridge is pumping crude through the Great Lakes on state-owned bottomlands without any explanation for the cause of this damage to the pipeline structure and no assurance that Enbridge has taken sufficient steps to mitigate future harm.”

Jamo ruled Thursday that without the temporary closure order, “the risk of harm to the Great Lakes and various communities and businesses that rely on the Great Lakes would be not only substantial but also in some respects irreparable,” CBC reports. He ordered Enbridge to shut down the line as “immediately as possible”, and in no more than 24 hours. 

While the court drama unfolds, local media are picking up deep opposition to Line 5. Aaron Payment, tribal chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, described a “self-regulatory environment” that has allowed Enbridge to take a “piecemeal approach” to protecting the natural resources and ecosystem in the lakes that his community and other Michiganders depend on.

“We need a whole overhaul and a much more progressive approach to making sure our natural resources are protected,” he told Michigan Radio. “Our treaty rights are very important to us,” and “it is within our world view that we protect our natural resource. We’re not separate from it. We depend on it.”

Payment outlined what he said was a history of poor practices and slow, incomplete communication from Enbridge, adding that the safety of Line 5 “should not be up to the benevolence of a private, international company.” In the event of a spill, he said the tributaries, wildlife, and fish in the area “will be destroyed for decades before it can be returned to its pre-spill ecology. That will hit the tourism industry and our revenues. So this is much bigger than an environmental concern…it’s going to hit everybody’s pocketbook when all of those businesses shut down.”

Last week, as well, Crain’s Detroit Business carried an opinion piece by Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest, arguing that the long-contested plan to build a costly new tunnel for Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac makes little sense at a time when oil demand is plummeting.

“Enbridge says its tunnel will cost US$500 million, but costs of projects like these often skyrocket,” he writes. “Who’s going to finance this tunnel given low oil price realities?”

In that light, “perhaps, Enbridge’s real strategy is to: (1) spend some money on permitting and planning processes for its tunnel, (2) while continuing to run its aging 65-year-old oil pipeline, but (3) actually hold off spending really big money for the tunnel. It’s probably not economically sensible for Enbridge and its financiers to invest in the tunnel if oil prices stay low.”

Which means the prospects for Enbridge lining up financing for the new tunnel are “risky. And so are the potentially disastrous environmental and economic consequences of a Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac.”