Oil Spill At Straits Would Affect 'Immense' Area -- According To New Study

Jul 11, 2014

Credit David J. Schwab of the University of Michigan Water Center

An oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac could affect an 'immense' area of the upper Great Lakes – according to a new study. A University of Michigan researcher has simulated how oil would spread if a major spill happened there. Enbridge runs a pipeline under the Straits, which has drawn criticism from people concerned with the 60-year old pipe's safety.

The Study Shows Widespread Damage

University of Michigan Professor David Schwab has created animations that predict what an oil spill at the Straits would look like in six different scenarios.

They show oil covering miles of shoreline. Oil wraps around Mackinac Island in one scenario. In another it encircles Beaver Island. Schwab says an "immense amount of area" could be impacted by a spill at the Straits.

In this scenario, oil is released over 12 hours at the northern section of the Straits. The video shows where currents might carry the oil.

Schwab’s an expert in Great Lakes hydrodynamics – that means he studies how water moves. He says water behaves in a unique way near the Straits, where there’s fast moving currents that are always changing.

“That flow can be in either direction," Schwab says. "From Lake Michigan into Lake Huron, or from Lake Huron into Lake Michigan. And it changes direction every couple of days. So it’s really a strange place in the Great Lakes."

This makes an oil spill even more dangerous. The animations show oil spreading far and wide in the swift currents. But Schwab is making a big assumption that the oil spill would be a huge event -- and not a smaller one. Think close to one million gallons of oil pouring into the Straits.

Steve Keck with the United States Coast Guard says he can imagine scenarios where the oil could be contained.

“If it were a slow leak and if we had good weather conditions and the majority of the spill was in the center of the Straits, then yes we’d have a good chance of containing the spill," Keck says.

He plans how the Coast Guard responds to disasters like an oil spill. He looks at simulations, too. In fact David Schwab designed one of the programs on which the Coast Guard relies.

Safety Concerns

Enbridge insists that an oil spill is unlikely. They say the pipeline is safe, even though it's older than the Mackinac Bridge. Here's a statement from Enbridge spokesperson Jason Manshum:

"Enbridge is proud of the operational history of Line 5.  The Straits of Mackinac crossing has been incident-free since it was constructed in 1953 and through even greater oversight, the use of new technology and ensuring all risks are monitored and where necessary mitigated, Enbridge is committed to maintaining this incident-free record into the future."

Some critics don’t believe Enbridge -- like Andy Buchsbaum with the National Wildlife Federation. The National Wildlife Federation paid for Schwab to study the possible effects of an oil spill.

“This is probably the worst threat to the Great Lakes that most people have never heard about," Buchsbaum says.

He says the pipeline should be replaced before disaster strikes.

“We have found no other pipeline any where in the world that runs through such a sensitive and fragile freshwater ecosystem," Buchsbaum says. 

He argues that an oil spill would affect the state in a number of ways besides the initial environmental damage. He says it would disrupt the economy, for example, by keeping tourists away and slowing down Great Lakes Shipping.

And he says a major spill would be unstoppable once it begins.

“Once the rupture takes place it’s going to be almost impossible to contain," Buchsbaum says. "The genie’s out of the bottle. The damage will have been done. And the Great Lakes would suffer irrevocably and irreparably. So we have to make sure that that the oil in the pipeline doesn’t reach the Great Lakes.”

The animations portray this worst-case event. You can check them out on our Facebook page -- or follow this link.