Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman.
Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman.

Just six miles from Mackinac Island is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich.—Just six miles west of Michigan’s most famous resort island, the Straits of Mackinac harbor deep underwater one of the state’s most dangerous ecological time bombs: Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline. 

Canadian oil giant Enbridge isn’t an especially safe or responsible company. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has pointed to Enbridge’s long history of institutional recklessness and their responsibility for what was, at the time, the worst inland oil spill in American history—the devastation of the Kalamazoo River in 2010. 

MORE ON LINE 5’S HISTORY: DNR: Enbridge’s Refusal to Shut Down Line 5 Poses a ‘Grave Threat’ To Michiganders

“The continued presence of the dual pipelines [Line 5] in the Straits of Mackinac violates the public trust and poses a grave threat to Michigan’s environment and economy,” DNR Director Dan Eichinger told The ’Gander. “Enbridge cannot unilaterally decide when laws and binding agreements apply and when they do not.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called Enbridge’s record of safety violations “persistent and incurable.” Despite all this, Line 5 remains in operation as Enbridge has refused shutdown orders and sued the state to keep the oil flowing through the Straits of Mackinac.

The threat posed by a break in Line 5 is real, the ramifications of the expected oil spill would be catastrophic. 

At only six miles away, Mackinac Island will be the first to face the crisis. 

Disaster 1: The Evacuation of Mackinac Island

Because the speed of an oil spill depends a lot on both the traits of the oil and of the lake, it’s hard to predict how quickly the spill would reach Mackinac Island’s shores. But oil drifts with the wind, east in Mackinac’s case, and given the close distance it would likely happen quickly. 

Mackinac Island has about 1,000 permanent residents as of 2019, but that population swells dramatically in the summer months with tourism. Ferries could be used in the initial hours of an oil spill to evacuate the people on the island, but once the oil reaches shore, the only way to the mainland would be by small aircraft. Evacuation would require helicopters and planes small enough to land on Mackinac Island. 

The island doesn’t allow cars, and so horses are iconic to Mackinac Island’s culture. They’d be left behind, as they’re too large for a rapid air evacuation. 

“That really hit home when people realized what that would mean on a hot summer day, with thousands of tourists camped out in Marquette Park, not to mention no water for the approximately 500 horses on the island,” Island resident Susan Lenfestey described at a local meeting last summer with activist group For Love of Water. “A question followed about what would a spill would mean in the winter? How would there be a clean up under the ice?  The answer: ‘No idea.’”

Disaster 2: Leaving Michigan Fishing High and Dry

As the oil spill spreads out into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, the next casualty would be Michigan’s fishing industry. Looking at lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, analysts found that the average Louisiana fisher’s yields had been devastated. In the year after that spill, oyster and shrimp landing has fallen by more than half. 

Commercial fishing in Michigan has already been a struggling industry. Invasive mussels have allowed more algae growth in Michigan’s lakes, meaning that fishers can spend weeks every year thinning the algae before they can catch anything. Down to only 13 full-time fishing businesses in 2019, the industry faces devastation if Line 5 breaks.

SEE ALSO: ‘There’s Always Something to Fish For’: Michigan Anglers Stay Busy Deep Into Fall on the Great Lakes

Still, the problem is likely to last long after the initial cleanup begins. Not all oil lives on the surface. About 10% or more is absorbed by sediments and will continue to impact the fish population for years to come. 

Disaster 3: Destroying the Great Lakes

Michiganders are, rightfully, proud to be the heart of the Great Lakes. It’s one of the most impressive freshwater systems in the world, holding six quadrillion gallons of water. That’s 20% of the freshwater on the surface of the Earth. 

Contaminating that system is a disastrous prospect on several fronts. Even a decade later, long-term impact from the devastation of the local wildlife from Deepwater Horizon is unknown. And closer to home, the Kalamazoo River oil spill contaminating the riverbed has caused irreparable damage to the river. That same contamination would happen across the Great Lakes while the herculean task of cleaning the spill was underway. 

Worse, the Kalamazoo oil spill flooded the normal bounds of the river and coated nearby plant life with oil. Trees along the river have black rings from the 2010 spill. Branches were coated with oil. Wetlands and ponds were contaminated, causing death to the creatures that form the basis of Michigan’s aquatic food chains. Were that to happen between the peninsulas, the damage to the ecosystem would be long-lasting and terrifying. 

Disaster 4: Turning Our Water Against Us

And unlike the Deepwater Horizon incident, Michiganders rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. Contaminating that water could have lasting health effects on Michiganders using it as tap water. Far from just devastating the nature and wildlife of the Great Lakes, studies have shown that drinking oil-contaminated water poses health risks that would have disastrous consequences on Michiganders. 

With the love of the water Michiganders have, it’s hard to imagine the cultural shock of it suddenly becoming an enemy thanks to a break in a hazardous pipeline.

Disaster 5: Breaking Our Promises

Line 5 runs straight through the heart of Anishinaabe territory, ceded to the United States in 1836 paving the way for Michigan’s statehood in 1837. The treaty that ceded the land also granted the Anishinaabe, now the Bay Mills Indian Community, the ability to, among other things, fish their waters in perpetuity. They argued that given Enbridge’s responsibility for the oil spill in the Kalamazoo river in 2010, Line 5 risked Michigan’s ability to hold up its end of the bargain. 

READ MORE: Indigenous Michiganders Led the Charge in Shutting Down Line 5

Breaking deals with Indigenous people is, sadly, not new for America. The fact that the treaty with the Anishinaabe was cited when Gov. Whitmer ordered Line 5 shut down was a remarkable step in American relations with its Indigenous people. 

Bryan Newland, Bay Mills’ chair, told Michigan Advance it was the first time he saw an American leader proactively cite treaty rights for Indigenous people without being forced to do so by courts. 

“It is always a struggle to get state governments to recognize the existence of our treaties, our rights and their responsibilities to not impair those rights,” he said. “It’s not enough to recognize our right to harvest. State governments have a responsibility to stop harming and degrading this fishery. This was a big step in tribal-state relations.”

But Enbridge has refused Whitmer’s order and is suing to keep the pipeline active. For Iindigenous Michiganders, that not only threatens a way of life but violates the law. For all Michiganders, that treaty violation endangers our way of life.