Many Michiganders made their coffee in the dark to get to Holt High School by 8 a.m. last week and voice their concerns about Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline across the straits of Mackinac.
Despite the early hour, about 130 people from across the state packed the public feedback session and 30 people gave spoken comments to a panel of state officials led by Valerie Brader, director of the Michigan Agency for Energy, and Assistant Attorney General Robert Reichel.
The meeting was only for comments, not for officials to respond.
Trust, or lack of it, was the dominant theme. Several speakers noted that the next day, July 25, marked the anniversary of the costliest on-shore oil spill in U.S. history, when an Enbridge pipeline spewed 20,000 barrels of heavy crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall in 2010.
“Why should we trust Enbridge at all?” Ellen Smith of Commerce Township asked.
Gerry Dunn of Holt said the deficit of trust applies to the state of Michigan as well as Enbridge.
“We’ve seen our representatives give away our water to Nestle,” he said. “We’ve seen what happened in Flint. We keep hearing how things are being watched over and taken care of, but we have past experience.”
Enbridge’s Line 5 carries over 23 million barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids daily under the Straits of Mackinac.
Many commenters expressed skepticism over a recent risk analysis of the 64-year-old pipeline by industry consultants Dynamic Risk.
The study concluded that there is about a 1-in-60 chance of the pipeline rupturing in the next 35 years, most likely because of a stray anchor dragging on the bottom.
Kate DeRosier of Hartland, in Livingston County, said the report is clouded by a “huge trust issue.”
“I’ve always treasured the fresh water in our state,” she said. “It’s too big of a gamble.”
The discourse at the comment session was civil but simmering. Chris Ventura, director of the Midwest chapter of the Consumer Energy Alliance, called anti-pipeline activists “privileged and ideological individuals” whose efforts, if successful, would keep low-income people, seniors and other “historically disadvantaged communities across the state” from access to affordable energy.
The remark irked a subsequent speaker, Lisa Bachert of Ypsilanti. “There’s a lot of un-privileged individuals in the state of Michigan who rely on that water, including native peoples and poor people,” she said. “It’s important that these people have the same kind of advocacy Enbridge is able to afford.”
DeRosier and commenter Anne Woiwode, former director of the Mackinac chapter of the Sierra Club, said the report’s alternatives analysis seemed to be laying groundwork for building a new pipeline.
“They’re really looking to lay new pipeline in the straits, maybe a 10-foot tunnel,” DeRosier said. “Do I trust them to do it? I do not.”
“They’re setting it up for a tunnel,” Woiwode agreed. “But we’re missing some fundamental points.”
Woiwode and other speakers said the oil fields feeding the pipeline are playing out and energy efficiency and alternative energy will cut into demand in the next 10 years.
“I’m worried about getting a replacement when there isn’t going to be a need for it,” Woiwode said.
The spoken comments were not entered into any written record, although the feedback session was videotaped. Written comments on the risk report will be accepted until Friday and responses to those comments will be taken through Aug. 19.
A handful of pro-pipeline speakers, most of them Enbridge employees, were sprinkled among the speakers.
Brian Buck, an Enbridge employee, said the pipeline is in “excellent working condition.”
“I am here as a concerned citizen, not a paid employee,” countered Anna Fisher, an anti-pipeline commenter from East Lansing.
Rusty Smith, terminal supervisor for Enbridge in Stockbridge, identified himself as a former Marine and a local firefighter and compared the pipeline to a “well-insulated house.”
“I have staunch integrity, this line is safe, and I will stand by that as long as I live,” Smith said.
Half an hour later, Bob Pratt, former fire chief of East Lansing, played his own firefighter card.
“We test our hoses every year and retire them after 10 years,” Pratt said. “It’s not a matter of if they fail, but when.”
Several speakers cited recently released underwater pictures of a stretch of the pipeline “ovaling,” or bending under pressure.
Pratt was among several commenters who said the Dynamic Risk report lowballed the potential damage of a rupture to the Great Lakes.
“I’ve responded to hazardous materials incidents,” he said. “The catastrophic failure of Line 5 in the wintertime, with ice on the lake — there’s no way the Coast Guard can respond to that kind of disaster.”
Several speakers cited a 2016 University of Michigan study concluding that more than 700 miles of U.S. and Canadian coastline could be exposed to risk if the pipelines rupture.
Sean McBrearty, campaign organizer for Clean Water Action, said Line 5 is the “number one issue” he hears about from the organization’s 200,000-plus members in the past few years.
“Michigan has a unique duty to protect the Great Lakes, not to make sure Enbridge can get its product to Canadian markets,” McBrearty said.
Chase DeBach of Charlotte talked of his travels as a photographer to places like coastal Ketchikan, Alaska, the Pacific coast and major rivers in the American West and Midwest.
“Through all the travels of my life, I’ve never seen a body of water so pure and pristine as those here in Michigan,” he said. “It baffles me why we’re even having this discussion.”
He reminded the panel of the state’s advertising slogan, “Pure Michigan.”
Shortly before the comment session ended, State Rep. Tom Cochran of Michigan’s 67th District, former chief of the Lansing Fire Department, stepped to the mike to call on Attorney General Bill Schuette to shut the pipeline down. Cochran said he would introduce a resolution to the state House calling for the pipeline to be decommissioned.
In a handout distributed at the event, state officials said no decision about the pipeline has been made and public comments will be reviewed by Dynamic Risk “for possible incorporation” into a final report.