The Great Lakes are home to 21% of the world’s fresh surface water between lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior, Erie, and Ontario. These lakes border 8 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario, and need little introduction, especially to Michigan residents like me. Despite my state being surrounded by water, it has been the center of a number of water-related scandals that have received varyingly disappointing amounts of media coverage partially due to alarmingly low transparency and accountability in our state government. There has been a continuing three-year long lack of clean water for most residents of Flint, still facing devastating health effects and the highest water fees in the country, and may be facing eviction from their homes soon. Nestlé, the food company partially responsible for the droughts in California and the Flint water crisis, recently attempted to grab hundreds of gallons of water from Michigan resources when the company continues to profit from the water bottles that individual donors have bought for Flint residents. Many thought the fight against the water grab would be hopeless considering Nestlé is the largest owner of private water sources in Michigan and Gov. Snyder and his Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore is married to Deb Muchmore, the head spokesperson for Nestlé Michigan. At a hearing for the water grab however, massive turnout from Flint residents and other water protectors pressured the powers that be to delay the water grab indefinitely.
Of course all this is happening while a 62-year-old oil pipeline with a 50 year life expectancy continues to erode in the Mackinac Straits and could burst at any minute, and has already had 29 inland spills, further from the Great Lakes. This pipeline is known as “Line 5” from the Canadian oil company Enbridge. This is the same oil company whose Line 6B ruptured in Kalamazoo Michigan only 7 years ago, causing the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history. As a current resident of Kalamazoo, I can see that the spill continues to harm many local communities, and our County Commission has been reluctant to pass a symbolic resolution against the pipeline. Well aware of what’s at stake, local County Commissions closer to Mackinac Straits (in the northmost area of the Lower Peninsula and east side of the Upper Peninsula) have already passed resolutions against it, urging Governor Snyder and Attorney General Schuette to take action in shutting it down. If the pipeline were to burst, oil would flow rapidly throughout the great lakes from the Mackinac Straits, which have currents 10 times stronger than Niagara falls. A website leading the movement to shut down Line 5 highlights “The strong underwater currents, fierce winds, and extreme winter weather conditions - sometimes including feet-thick ice cover - at the Straits make them ecologically sensitive and would make cleanup or recovery from a pipeline spill especially difficult.” (http://www.oilandwaterdontmix.org/problem) AG Bill Schuette himself said that Line 5’s “days are numbered” and has the authority to shut it down immediately. Governor Rick Snyder has the same authority, but both have yet to lift a finger to prevent this potential crisis. After their responsibility for poisoning the water supply of Flint, (and sequentially covering it up) their silence on this issue is deafening.
The attention to this pipeline by mainstream and even alternative media has been criminally low, even within Michigan. Many fellow Michiganders I’ve spoken with about it haven’t even heard of Line 5 until I explained it to them. If the pipeline were to burst, I'm sure thousands of Michigan residents would deeply regret not knowing about it earlier. So what makes me think that this is an easier fight to win than DAPL? Even after months of committed resistance to the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline, the water protectors have ultimately been unable to prevent the construction of the pipeline through native burial grounds and the Missouri river, (the largest river in North America) and oil is already flowing through it. How can we expect to stop Line 5 with substantially less media attention and massive corruption between Big Oil and our government? There are a number of reasons this is possible, though they may not be the most ethical reasons.
1. An oil spill in the Great Lakes would hurt Michigan’s economy and reputation massively:
The Great Lakes have a hand in bringing in visitors and economic participants from all around the country and the world. There are many calm beach sites with less harsh summers than southern beaches, beautiful outlooks of the lakes, and the waters themselves prove a vast resource for our communities. An oil spill would not only jeopardize our local interstate economies, but heavily undermine what our state is supposed to stand for. Will we still be the Great Lakes State if our lakes our no longer great? How can we call ourselves ‘Pure Michigan’ if our signature Great Lakes are anything but pure? Our access to so much surface fresh water is predicted to make Michigan an economic hot spot in the coming years, especially considering the continuing effects of climate change.
2. It would ruin the lives of a lot of (white) people:
Yes white people. Let’s not forget that DAPL was originally routed to go through a white suburban community in North Dakota before being rerouted through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. If our government and oil companies care so much about keeping oil out of the water of (suburban) whites, they would be apt to get this shut down quickly. It’s a shame that we may have to play off of white privilege and white supremacy for the powers that be to care about what happens to our water, but the Great Lakes are shared among people of all races, and maintenance of it would be a huge help to the (majority black) residents of Flint. Which leads nicely to my next point...
3. It is bad for big business and big government:
Looking toward the people with power, the politicians and the corporations that buy them off, we need to think about where their motivations lie in order to potentially influence them. Corporations want to turn a profit and politicians want to get (re-)elected. How would a Line 5 spill hurt them both? After the Line 6B burst, Enbridge already has a tainted reputation, but a Line 5 burst could be the final nail in the coffin. Oil pipelines spill all the time, but a second controversial spill could bury what’s left of Enbridge’s reputation. Big name water-grabber Nestlé would also lose a lot of potential revenue if the Great Lakes were to be compromised. Michigan’s state government being controlled by a Republican trifecta (Governorship, and majorities in State House, and State Senate) would put their party at central blame for inaction against this pipeline, after years of inaction on Flint. With an estimated $1 billion cleanup cost in the event of a burst, state and federal legislators would likely be required to raise taxes in order to clean up the mess, something that “the party of tax cuts” would have a very hard time allowing. In an era of pushback against Donald Trump, we are already seeing deep red congressional districts nationwide turn purple in recent special elections. If Michigan’s GOP is complicit with the destruction of the Great Lakes, their electoral prospects in the state may be completely doomed, no matter how much campaign money Betsy DeVos throws at them.
4. The investments for Line 5 are WAY smaller than DAPL:
While the Dakota Access Pipeline costs around $3.8 billion to make, and perhaps much more to counteract the hits from nonviolent resistance and divestments, Line 5 only has a few million dollars to it’s name. With less of a commitment and higher risk in the investment, a divestment campaign could end up being more effective than what we’ve seen in response to DAPL. Conveniently enough, many of the same banks funding DAPL are also funding Line 5, namely Bank of America. It’s harder to stop the oil companies themselves from pipelining since that’s their bread and butter, but fossil fuel investments are a drop in the bucket for big banks, especially when green energy becomes more and more profitable by the day. A Michigan and Canada centered divestment campaign to their big banks could be an especially strong pressure to Line 5’s investors.
5. There is already a pending bipartisan legislation in the U.S. house against this pipeline:
Early on in January, U.S. House Reps. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn (both from Michigan), introduced the "Preserve Our Lakes and Keep our Environment Safe (LAKES) Act" (H.R.458). This bill would direct federal regulators to decommission the controversial Line 5 if a 12-month study finds it poses a significant risk. Unfortunately we may not have 12 months to wait for this. We may not even have however long it would take for such a bill to pass the house, senate, and executive branch, but it is a start. Any U.S. citizen is strongly recommended to call their Senators and Representative on this issue, and Michigan residents can also call their state government on every level. They can’t ignore this issue forever, and public pressure works.
The biggest thing standing in the way of a massive, grassroots resistance to Line 5 (at least at this point) seems to be lack of knowledge on the issue. With an expected Standing Rock style encampment is expected to occupy the coasts of the Mackinac Straits soon, there is plenty of room for this movement to gain momentum. Talk to your friends about this, share this article around (shameless plug), and get people on board for the next battle protecting our water.