Once More: Line 5 and the Public Trust

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FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, this commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Perhaps if they hear it often enough, they’ll act.

Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, established by Governor Snyder in September 2015, heard Monday from FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood about the state’s public trust responsibilities.

It was FLOW that identified these responsibilities as the debate over unsafe Enbridge Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac intensified several years ago.  Simply put, the public owns the lakebed under the Straits that Line 5 crosses – and state government, as the trustee, has the authority and the obligation to assure that any party granted an easement to use the public’s lakebed is not compromising the public uses protected by the trust.  The Legislature passed a law in 1953 granting Enbridge an easement across the Straits – subject to the public trust.

Enbridge has clearly fallen short of that standard with shoddy maintenance, concealment of damaging information and a track record of failure, culminating in the mammoth spill into the Kalamazoo River watershed in 2010. 

FLOW’s message Monday – Enbridge can comply with public trust interests and state law only if the state compels it to submit an application for the entire massive overhaul of Line 5 it seeks to undertake, and only with simultaneous consideration of feasible and prudent alternatives – including using other means to deliver the petroleum currently served up by Line 5.

Here are a few of Liz’s comments from Monday: 

“We are approaching the hour of decision on the fate of Line 5.  This process has been an epic example of how not to protect a world-class resource.  Transparency, corporate integrity and the rule of law have all been casualties. But there is one last chance to make it right.

“Enbridge has never applied for and DEQ has never comprehensively reviewed, considered, or authorized the new design with 128 screw anchors elevating the Line 5 pipelines off the lakebed.  This new design was not contemplated in 1953.  Moreover, the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act does not authorize ‘activity’ permits that actually constitute a new design, permanent structures, and improvements on bottomlands or suspended in water areas above the bottomlands; rather, a new application is required in conformance with the public trust.

“The Great Lakes are held in trust by the State of Michigan as public trustee for the benefit of its citizens. The 1953 easement with Enbridge was issued fully subject to the public trust, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held states have the power to resume the trust whenever the State judges best.  The state owes Enbridge nothing.  Enbridge owes the people of Michigan the respect they deserve by ending its efforts to skirt statutes and the public trust.”


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