In the northwestern corner of Indiana a major pipeline project is planned that will carry vast quantities of heavy Canadian crude oil across four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, where 10 million people get their drinking water. The pipeline will cross one river just 11 miles from the lake. It crosses the other three rivers less than 20 miles from the lake.
Because the pipeline runs so close to Lake Michigan—and because it is being built by a company with a history of pipeline spills in the region—a growing coalition of environmental groups is demanding that it be given extraordinary oversight and protection.
But getting those protections will be almost impossible.
No federal or Indiana agency has authority to require the pipeline's Canadian operator, Enbridge, Inc., to move the line out of the Lake Michigan watershed—or to add extra safeguards, including sophisticated technology that can detect even minor spills.
Enbridge was responsible for the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, a 2010 rupture near Marshall, Mich. that dumped more than a million gallons of Canadian crude into the Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary. Oil from Line 6B contaminated about 36 miles of the river before cleanup workers managed to stop it roughly 70 miles from the lake. Enbridge was fined $3.7 million for breaking more than 20 federal rules, and the National Transportation Safety Board reprimanded the company for "a complete breakdown of safety."
Enbridge's new project will replace Line 6B with a larger pipe that can carry as much as 21 million gallons per day, more than double its capacity when it fouled the Kalamazoo. Like the existing 6B, it will carry a thick oil from Canada's tar sands called bitumen that has been thinned with liquid chemicals to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit. During the 2010 spill, the light chemicals evaporated while the bitumen slowly sank, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told Enbridge in October that submerged oil needs to be dredged from 100 acres of the river.
"There have got to be lessons learned from the Kalamazoo spill," said Steve Hamilton, a Michigan State University professor of ecology and environment who served on the EPA team that recommended the dredging. "There are legitimate issues to be concerned about in Indiana."
A major spill into one of the Indiana rivers would be even more disastrous than the Michigan spill, the environmental groups say, because the pipeline's crossing points are so much closer to Lake Michigan.
"If the Marshall spill would have happened here, it would have been in Lake Michigan," said Nathan Pavlovic, a land and advocacy specialist with Save the Dunes, a 60-year-old nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Indiana Dunes and the Lake Michigan watershed. "There are just too many unanswered questions at this point to consider this a safe project when you consider the devastating consequences of a spill."
In addition to serving as one of the nation's most important drinking water supplies, Lake Michigan supports recreational activities that are vital to the regional economy and an ecosystem that is home to rare plants and animals.
Erin Argyilan, a geoscientist who has lived near the lake for most of her life, wants Enbridge to disclose how it would respond to spills in various parts of the lake's watershed. An oil spill in a wetland, for instance, would behave very differently from oil spilled into a fast-moving tributary.
"Where would it be after two hours? After four hours? After six hours?" asked Argyilan, who sits on the Save the Dunes board and chairs the geosciences department at Indiana University Northwest. "This type of modeling [would] put a realistic face on what could happen.
"It's unfortunate to always go to the worst case scenario, but in this case it's necessary when one of the world's largest fresh water resources is at stake."
Argyilan questioned Enbridge about its plans at a public meeting in September, but she said she got only general assurances that response teams were in place and that shut-off valves would quickly close the pipeline if a spill occurred.
Pipeline operators aren't required to file their emergency response plans with federal regulators until their projects are built. And they're not required to share them with the public. Local emergency officials in Indiana told InsideClimate News they trust that Enbridge's emergency plans for the existing 6B are sufficient—even though some said they hadn't reviewed those plans.