We humans are visual creatures. It’s in our nature to focus on what we can see, it’s in our nightmares to focus on the unseen and the hidden because we just aren’t very good at preparing ourselves for what isn’t readily visible. Even within our own bodies, some of the most dangerous illnesses are the ones with few symptoms – at least until they suddenly erupt. High blood pressure seems like no big deal until a stroke hits.
Somehow, we manage to have the same approach to pathways and passages which we ourselves have built. Like forgetful squirrels, we lay pipelines for oil and gas supplies, assume the supply will remain intact, and then put them out of our minds.
Pipelines to carry oil have been laid all around the world for a century. And like any pipe, at some point they show their signs of age. Pipes can break due to corrosion, excavation work, material and welding errors, natural force, external damage (such as anchors hitting underwater pipes), and faulty operation.
Mostly, though, it’s age and material failure that cause leaks like the recent Tioga leak in North Dakota, the largest U.S. onshore spill in history. A quick glance here will reveal an unsettling, ongoing litany of oil spills during any given month.
In Michigan, two 50 cm (20 in.) pipes were laid down in 1953 as a part of the 3000 km (1900 m.) Lakehead System that runs from North Dakota down to points east and south. Most of the Lakehead system is underground, this segment, known as Line 5, runs underwater through the Straits of Mackinac between northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The pipes traverse the juncture between two Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. “While Line 5’s capacity has increased, neither regulatory scrutiny nor corporate transparency have followed suit. The Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s and 20% of the planet’s surface freshwater, are at a greater risk than ever,” according to FLOW, a non-profit organization working to protect the Great Lakes.
Line 5 is owned and operated by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a company that insists the lines have been operating well for ‘decades’ and are perfectly intact. This is the same company whose lines burst and polluted the Kalamazoo River at a continuing clean-up cost of four years and over $1 billion.
Sometimes, the unseen around which we build our nightmares doesn’t merit closer examination; it’s just smoke and ephemera, the stuff of tall stories.