A spot of tempestuous and historic beauty is also a looming environmental disaster
Though today, the region is best-known for quaint little towns, and a touristy, car-less island half-filled with fudge shops and half with wild beauty, the region where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron crash into one another is one of the pivot points of American history. The Straits of Mackinac (pronounced “Mack-en-awe”), were for centuries of enormous strategic importance, to the native tribes and to colonialists. Who controlled them controlled access to the upper lakes, the northern Mississippi, and what was essentially the west.
Wars were fought over this region, including proxy wars like the “French and Indian War” that led to world-changing events. Indeed, the French and the English taking sides in tribal conflicts was the precipitating event to the Seven Years War, which altered the course of empire and paved the way for American independence (which paved the way for extermination and extirpation of the area’s tribes).
But the region isn’t talked much about except as a destination. Still, it is an obvious geographic hinge, a short way through the Great Lakes region, which has always made it attractive for bridge-builders and oilmen alike. That’s why there are oil pipelines underneath the straits, built in the 1950s to bring oil from upper Wisconsin to the midwest refineries, without having to go around Wisconsin, through Chicago, and up through Michigan. But the same qualities that make it attractive
But the same qualities that make it attractive are what makes it dangerous. The narrow straits are where two* enormous lakes collide. They are tempestuous and dangerous, with swirling waves and howling winds, currents that can shift on a dime. Many great tankers have run aground. And those pipelines are constantly being battered by these forces, and many fear they could burst.
The story of these pipelines was chronicled in detailed and concise fashion by Great Lakes and environmental reporter Dan Egan, in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal last week. In a long and comprehensive piece called “Dangerous Straits”, Egan lays out the dangers facing these pipelines, but also the dependence we have on them, and the perhaps greater dangers of transporting oil through populated areas by train or truck.
Were the pipes to leak, as Egan details, oil could spread as far south as Door County and Green Bay, destroying the region. Heavy currents could carry the oil in unpredictable directions, and because the water is so clean and cold, it lacks the oil-eating microbes found in the Gulf (and of course, those obviously only do so much anyway). Cleanup ships would have a very hard time operating in rough weather, which happens frequently, and would be extremely difficult in ice-choked winter. Egan estimates a cleanup at $800 million: and that’s just to get rid of the oil. It’s not the long-term effects.
Of course, this won’t happen. Throughout the piece, we’re ensured by the company that runs the pipeline, Enbridge, that they’ll never break. If Enbridge sounds familiar, it is because they were responsible for the largest inland oil spill in American history in 2010, when a burst pipeline in a Kalamazoo River tributary poisoned miles of the river, dumping nearly a million gallons of heavy bitumen crude into the waterway. The cost to clean it up ran to nearly a billion dollars, which didn’t include the settlement (which isn’t punitive, but to mitigate the lingering impact).
Were there warning signs? Of course. Were there regulations ignored? Absolutely? Were regulations strictly enforced? Of course not. That’s what happens with pipelines. As Charlie Pierce says, there are two rules of pipelines: they leak, and companies lie.
There are a couple of takeaways here. The overarching one is that our dependence on oil, and our increasing turn toward heavy bitumen, is a disaster waiting to happen. All throughout the piece, Egan talks to nervous residents who are fearful about what can happen in a spill (essentially, their livelihoods destroyed, not to mention the emotional trauma of seeing such beauty despoiled), but many are also resigned to it. Oil has to go somewhere, of course. There are no easy answers, and Egan doesn’t postulate easy answers, another reason why this is such a great piece.
And while it doesn’t come up, the heavy stench of the election lingers over it. Regulations are hard to enforce when you have an administration dedicated to it. One that is inherently opposed to regulations and rejects the common good can sap even the weakest attempts to prevent a spill. It’s not that Enbridge wants a spill (and to be fair, it isn’t like they are sitting on their hands) but the entropy of oversight means the bare minimum will always be done. And when that minimum keeps sinking, well…
But one of the great takeaways for me is the continuing power of great journalism. Egan’s piece is fairly and firmly reported, in great detail. There are amazing photos of the building of the pipes, scientific analysis of what the nature of Mackinac means for underwater pipelines, and he talks to all parties, going as far downstream as the impact on trout in the rivers (“What’s it worth to not have trout in the Au Sable River for generations?” is a very good question). There with a spirit of encompassing inquiry, which helps the reader fully understand what is at stake for all parties.
This is great journalism, and is what we need moving forward. We need fires held to feet, and we need an informed citizenry that can understand what is happening in this Gilded Age where environmental protections are deliberately among the first casualties. Because we understand the costs, financial and emotional, of these sorts of disasters. I nearly weep at the thought of a spill in those clear and terrifying waters. To have a hinge of our history blithely destroyed would be an elegant summation of our dissolving times.
(* Geologically and hydrologically speaking, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are really one lake. The straits are wide enough that they create one body. But we look at them on a human level, of course, and impose our own understandable needs, a creation of our politics, but mostly how small we are compared to their vastness, and how little we can comprehend at any one time. Even the narrow straits dwarf us, which is what makes our outsized impact even more tragic.)