How A Spill From One Oil Pipeline Launched A Movement To Shut Down Another

Jul 24, 2020

An opponent of Enbridge Energy Line 5 holds a sign at Kalamazoo County Commission meeting in May 2017
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Beth Wallace is with the National Wildlife Federation. She works from its office in Ann Arbor. But Wallace is originally from Marshall. When Enbridge Energy’s Line 6B pipeline broke near the city in 2010, Wallace headed home to help with the cleanup. The pipe had spilled close to a million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.


“The week right after spill was probably one of most frustrating situations I have ever been exposed to,” Wallace told WMUK.

The Marshall spill overlapped with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We really just didn’t have resources in our area to manage what was unfolding because everything, all the focus was on the gulf. It was a pretty heartbreaking situation,” she added.

Wallace said Enbridge made an announcement during the cleanup: “They wanted to increase pressure on Line 5.”

Line 5, a different Enbridge pipeline, crosses from the UP into Lower Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac. At the time of the Marshall spill, Line 5 had sat on the lakebed in the Straits for nearly 60 years. Even seasoned activists didn’t know about it. That began to change after the rupture on Line 6B. The spill led witnesses of that disaster to raise questions about pipelines.

“I dove a little bit deeper into Line 5 and its history, and I wanted to know more specifically how it was being maintained and operated,” Wallace said.

Now Line 5 is a household name in Michigan. The battles over its future are statewide news. And it is embattled, in court and in public opinion. Enbridge insists that the line is safe. That it’s carefully watched. But a growing list of tribal governments, water resources groups and even businesses disagree.  They’re calling for the pipe to shut down.

Wallace says the more she learned about Line 5, the more she believed it endangered the Great Lakes.

“The currents in that location are extreme on multiple fronts including how swift they are, but then how unpredictable they are,” she said. “The surface currents could be completely different than the currents in the deeper depth of that location, which makes cleanup near impossible.”

Around the state, other groups began to investigate Line 5. Liz Kirkwood directs the Traverse City group For Love Of Water or FLOW. FLOW does legal analysis for the causes it supports, including shutting down Line 5.

“At the very beginning of this awakening, there was this sense that because it was an interstate oil pipeline, that the feds were kind of the key decision makers,” FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said.

Kirkwood says even the state seemed to think so. She recalls what happened when she called the Department of Natural Resources.

“I was calling the Department of Natural Resources and I said, ‘I’m looking for this pipeline, it’s located in the Straits of Mackinac and I think there’s some kind of deed,’ and the guy on the other end of the line said, ‘We have this policy, we throw away all the documents after 40 years.’

“And I said, ‘As a lawyer, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be throwing this one out.’ Sure enough, we hung up the phone and he got back to his office and he found this 1953 easement.”

FLOW’s idea of the state’s role began to change.

“We all of a sudden kind of started to unearth and understand the key role that the State of Michigan played as the public trustee," Kirkwood said.

“Our conclusion was that the state had the primary jurisdiction,” FLOW founder and president Jim Olson added.  “Because the feds looked over safety once the pipeline was built but it was up to the states to locate and authorize, particularly in a public trust bottomlands, a crude oil pipeline. In the United States it’s up to the states on the location.”

Olson says Enbridge is facing five major legal or administrative challenges over its pipeline in the Straits, including Attorney General Dana Nessel’s lawsuit that seeks to void the company’s original easement with the state.

Enbridge might win these battles. But it’s clear the company’s headaches from the Line 6B oil spill didn’t end in Marshall.