Tag: Liz Kirkwood

Michigan’s Latest Emergency Drinking Water Crisis: PFAS, Another History Lesson Ignored Again

In 1962, with the release of her seminal work, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson sounded a warning to the American public about the perils of persistent pesticide chemicals like DDT to silence the very ecosystems they attempt to tame. Carson’s story underscored the interconnectedness of all living things and systems and the need to understand the full life cycle of biocides and other chemicals in order to truly protect human health and the environment.

Despite Carson’s work and subsequent congressional toxic chemical legislation, every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States.[1] How can this be?

Several weeks ago, I met a professor of environmental toxicology and spoke with him at length about Michigan’s latest emergency drinking water crisis involving a different chemical of concern: per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are an emerging contaminant of concern because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, having been commonly used in firefighting foam, water resistant fabrics, nonstick surfaces, stain guards and other commercial and industrial applications. According to recent reporting, there are an estimated 11,000 sites with PFAS contamination affecting a potential 1.5 million citizens in Michigan.[2]

This professor boiled down the problem right back to Rachel Carson’s work, explaining that DDT was in the chlorine family. Once the public and policymakers raised the alarm bells about this chemical family in the 1960s, the chemists simply moved over to the next element – fluorine – and started developing a host of water repellent compounds for commercial and residential use without understanding the public health and environmental impacts once again.

Michiganders now are demanding answers again from their state government that has failed to warn and protect its citizens. Now that the public is clamoring for action, state and federal agencies are finding PFAS in many places. The public water supply of the City of Parchment was found to be contaminated at unacceptable levels, and customers were warned not to use it temporarily. Private well owners near a Wolverine Worldwide shoe manufacturing facility in Kent County have had to seek alternate water supplies. PFAS have also shown up in some school drinking water supplies and in surface waters near Wurtsmith Air Force base.

As early as 2012, DEQ scientists warned administrators about PFAS and their persistence in the environment, and yet, the department failed to take any action putting people and the environment first.

Sadly, this is not Michigan’s first chemical rodeo show. Yet, our state leaders and agencies continue to follow the same playbook: identify the toxic chemical, tell people not to drink the water, scrape up some funding to clean up some contamination sites, and then finally fund the science to determine what a “safe” level is. The State of Michigan needs to do all these things for PFAS, but we need to do a lot, lot more.

First, the PFAS fiasco is a failure of state government to heed the constitutional mandate to protect public health — the executive and legislative branches both. As in the case of Flint’s lead poisoning, experts warned state officials of a threat, and the officials dismissed it. Moreover, over 20 years ago in 1995, the legislature exposed the public to persistent PFAS threats by weakening liability and increasing the allowable cancer risk.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Second, the PFAS fiasco is a canary in the policy coal mine. It’s a warning and a reminder that our economy and environment are engulfed in a bath of chemicals, many of whose risks are unknown. The public trust doctrine forbids the impairment of water-related uses, but as long as our chemical policy is founded in ignorance, we are breaching the doctrine hundreds of times over. It’s time to right the wrong and protect the public trust — and health.


 [1] See 84,000 Chemicals on the Market, Only 1% Have Been Tested for Safety, Ecowatch, July 5, 2015 https://www.ecowatch.com/84-000-chemicals-on-the-market-only-1-have-been-tested-for-safety-1882062458.html; Mark Scialla, “It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill,” PBS hour, June 22, 2016 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill

[2] See Keith Matheny, “DEQ: Harmful PFAs might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide,” Detroit Free Press, July 30, 2018, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/07/30/deq-pfas-chemical-contamination-pollution-michigan/851152002/; Garret Ellison, “PFAS found in drinking water for 1.5M in Michigan,” MLive, August 23, 2018, https://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/08/pfas_michigan_public_water.html.


Water: the Great Uniter

Last Thursday, July 6, was FLOW’s second annual An Evening for the Great Lakes hosted by amazing co-organizers Cammie Buehler and Jeremy Turner at the beautiful Cherry Basket Farms near Omena.

What a fantastic night! We want to extend a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a major success. Special thanks to incredible musician Chris Thile for the amazing concert!

Thanks to all of the sponsors who made the night possible: Patagonia, Patagonia Chicago The Magnificent Mile, Patagonia Chicago Lincoln ParkEpicure Catering & Cherry Basket FarmStifelIdyll FarmsArbor Brewing Company, Baia EstateIron Fish DistilleryArt’s Tavern Glen ArborImage360 – Traverse CityOryana Community Co-opHawkins OutfittersGoSili / SilikidsVada Color, Shoe Nami Art.


FLOW’s executive director, Liz Kirkwood, opened the program with remarks that are excerpted here:

“As part of tonight’s program, I’d like to share a little about our work at FLOW.

We all know these are times of great division and strife. But common purpose is still possible.

Take the State of Michigan as an example – two peninsulas of varying history, geography, geology, natural heritage and character – but made one by a majestic bridge that joins them. One Michigan.

Take the water that we share as another example. When it comes to water, political and partisan differences dissipate like dirt and grime washed clean in a rainstorm.

Water is a uniter. We need it to live. We all want access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water. We all appreciate its beauty. We differ only in how to go about achieving this goal. 

Support for protecting water resources is strong and consistent across diverse constituencies, bridging partisan divides. Polling and focus group work show in Michigan and the Midwest that support for policies protecting water resources, water quality and water quantity are very strong among self-identifying liberals and conservatives.

That’s where FLOW comes in.  

As many of you know, our foundational principle is the public trust doctrine. It’s an ancient tenet of law, but more relevant than ever.

Its premise is that some things by their nature cannot be privately owned, and instead belong to the public.

One of those things is water.

That includes the water of the Great Lakes – 20% of the available fresh surface water on the planet.

It also applies to the land beneath those waters. Those, too, are part of the public trust.

Michigan has 38,000 square miles of land under the Great Lakes. We have more land under water than some states have above water. Our submerged Great Lakes lands are bigger than the State of Indiana.

And it’s all yours – and ours.

Think of it as our biggest state park. And imagine a pipeline pumping 23 million gallons of petroleum a day through your favorite state park – whether that’s Hartwick Pines, Porcupine Mountains – or the Straits of Mackinac. That’s one reason FLOW is involved in the battle to decommission Line 5.

FLOW was founded for this very reason – to embrace a stewardship principle to protect these sacred waters and submerged lands of the Great Lakes – and the uses the public makes of them — for now and future generations.

There’s certainly plenty to work on. We need to address looming and daunting challenges: invasive species (like Asian carp), legacy and emergent contamination (like AOCs and PFOAs), water diversions and exports, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, wetlands destruction, urban development, growth, and resilience. 

But thanks to generous support from people like you, I’m happy to report FLOW has racked up a number of accomplishments in the last year.

  • We helped stop further moves by politicians to put factory fish farms in the open waters of the Great Lakes. 
  • We launched our successful Get Off the Bottle awareness campaign, educating the public about the bad deal bottled, privatized water means to them – and about the plastics that increasingly plague our Great Lakes.   
  • We formed and strengthened new alliances with sovereign tribes and with citizens of communities with water crises, like Flint and Detroit. 
  • We helped develop the legal theories and factual bases enabling tribes to commence litigation to shut down Line 5 in the Straits (yes, you heard that correctly), and to challenge Nestle’s water withdrawal permit. 
  • Because of our science-driven law and policy work, we have become a go-to source for the media, legislators, agencies, partners, and citizens.  

I think you’ll see from these issues and accomplishments that we’re not just against things. Yes, we oppose the continued risk that Line 5 represents to the Great Lakes and Nestle’s water grab, but we’re also positive. We offer alternatives and we work constructively with diverse groups.

That’s the beauty of the public trust – it is founded on a vision of clean, abundant public water, shared by all.

That is what we work to protect.

That is what we all believe in.

Jean-Michel Cousteau said, “Clean water, the essence of life and a birthright for everyone, must become available to all people now.”

This is our vision, but it is a bigger vision. Water unites us and I am glad it has united us tonight, here in this beautiful place, here in the heart of the Great Lakes.”


Tapping into Local Awesomeness


The Local Movement

Did you know that the City of Traverse City has been addressing plastic pollution, climate change, and water privatization for almost a decade? I’m so proud of our small but mighty Midwest town here in the heart of the Great Lakes.

In 2009, our city adopted a resolution to ban plastic bottled water from all municipal functions! Why? Because the city had already recognized the wasteful nature of single-use plastic water bottles, the staggering expense associated with bottled water, the climate change impacts and carbon footprint associated with producing and shipping plastics made from fossil fuels, and the incredible high quality drinking water Traverse City provides its residents. City Planner, Russ Soyring, explained that this resolution is a reflection of the city’s culture now. And it’s a testimony to how resilient we are when we decide to be. 

In less than 10 years, bottled water has outstripped the sales of carbonated soda beverages, and bottled water has been become another normalized American addiction. Compared to municipal water, bottled water can cost up to 2000% more per volume than tap water. Around 64% of commercial bottled water is just tap water that’s been filtered or purified. 70% of plastic water bottles are not recycled — and still people drink from them.

The Larger Conversation

This conversation about bottled water is a critical one to us at FLOW because it opens the door to a larger policy conversation about the urgency of retaining and protecting water as a public resource. That’s why we started the Get Off the Bottle campaign. That’s why we started mapping all the drinking fountains and refillable bottled water stations on an app called WeTap. If we’re going to change our habits, we know we need alternatives like knowing where we can fill up our reusable water bottle. 

In buying bottled water, consumers are inadvertently legitimizing the capture of water that belongs to all of us by private, for-profit companies who reap unearned, enormous riches. Water belongs to the public and cannot be privately owned. Turning water into a product for private profit is inconsistent with the 1500-year-old public trust doctrine of law and risks putting all water up for grabs. 

The majority of municipal water systems in this country – some 85% — are publicly owned and remain accountable to residents under constitutional and public governance. But as our municipal infrastructure continues to age without adequate funding support, there will be increasing pressure to privatize our drinking and wastewater systems. The latest example comes to us from Puerto Rico. And clear patterns emerge from water privatization, well documented to include: rate increases, lack of public accountability and transparency, higher operation costs, worse customer service, loss of one in three water jobs. A Food & Water Watch survey of rates by 500 water systems showed that privatized systems typically charge 59 percent more than publicly owned systems.

We know there is no one size that fits all; however, when it comes to water, we have to affirmatively commit to protecting it as a shared public resource. To this end, we believe that local governments across the Great Lakes Basin must insist on key principles that Jim Olson articulated in his blog several months ago:

  1. Declare all water public; just because our natural public water commons enter an intake pipe does not mean this water loses its public common and sovereign status. Government at all times must manage and provide water as sovereign for the benefit of people.
  2. Impose public oversight with a duty to protect the public service, public interest, public health, and public trust in water and the infrastructure the water passes through;
  3. Establish rights and Impose duties of accountability, notice, participation, equal access to safe, adequate, clean, affordable public water;
  4. Guarantee principles of due process, equal protection of law, and right to basic water service;
  5. Guarantee affordability and equity in access and use of water by all residents and customers;
  6. Implement fair and innovative pricing, subject to public oversight, a public utility or water board, with a statement of rights, duties, enforcement, and government process to assure safe, clean, affordable public water.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

 

Fundamentally, while national and state environmental policies are critically important, we know that local communities are where policies take shape in our daily lives. It’s right here in our own communities where we can make a difference. Thanks TC for taking back the tap!


Latest Enbridge Reports Underscore Line 5’s Vulnerability to 400 Michigan Waterways


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                           June 29, 2018
Contact:  Liz Kirkwood                                                                      Email: Liz@FLOWforWater.org
Executive Director                                                                                           Office: (231) 944-1568
FLOW (For Love of Water)                                                                               Cell: (570) 872-4956


Latest Enbridge Reports Underscore Line 5’s Vulnerability to 400 Michigan Waterways and Ongoing Unacceptable Risk to the Straits


TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Enbridge today released three reports required as part of the November 2017 agreement with the Governor concerning Line 5. The reports examine possible methodologies to mitigate potential leaks from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac and at nearly 400 water crossings throughout Michigan.

“These reports from Enbridge provide a stack of evidence supporting the public’s call for Gov. Snyder and Attorney General Schuette to shut down Line 5 right now before there is a catastrophic oil spill in the Mackinac Straits,” said For Love of Water (FLOW) Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, an environmental attorney and a co-leader of the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign. “Enbridge acknowledges that Line 5 lacks the latest safety technology, remains at risk of more anchor strikes, and threatens not only the Mackinac Straits but also many Great Lakes tributaries, wetlands, and other aquatic resources along its 554-mile-long route in Michigan.

“The governor and attorney general need to stop promoting their long-term dream of a Canadian oil pipeline tunnel under the Straits and across nearly 400 waterbodies in Michigan alone, and finally confront this danger to the Great Lakes, our drinking water, and our jobs tied to the Pure Michigan economy.”

Of particular concern, information in the three reports released Friday by Line 5-owner Enbridge reveals that:

  • Water Crossings Report: This report reveals that Line 5 crosses nearly 400 Michigan waterways, almost double the number of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands Line 5 was thought to cross. This should shine a light on the fact that not only are the Straits of Mackinac at risk to a potential catastrophic oil spill, but so are 400 waterbodies in our state. According to NWF’s FOIA review, since 1968, Enbridge’s Line 5 has ruptured at least 29 times on land, rupturing over 1.1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s environment.
  • Technology Reports: (1) Underwater Leak Detection Report: This report examined three external leak detection technologies and concluded that not one of them could provide continuous real-time monitoring that was practical, cost-effective, or operationally proven. With costs ranging between $4 and $40 million, the report used a net present cost assuming a 20-year operating and maintenance period. Both of the optical camera options would require 1,800 cameras on the dual pipelines. (2) Coating Technologies Report: As a part of the leak detection report, the coating technology report ignored the fact that Enbridge’s screw-anchor engineering efforts caused coating pipeline loss in over 80 locations, and does not address how Enbridge will attempt to remedy this major design defect as they work this summer to install another 22 anchors and then possibly 48 more. These anchor permits are currently being challenged at the administrative level by a citizens’ group (Straits of Mackinac Alliance) and the tribes (Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa and Odawa Indians).
  • Anchor Strike Mitigation Report: This report noted that the probability of a failure of an anchor strike to the existing dual pipeline is two to three times higher than the values provided in the November 2017 Dynamic Risk alternative analysis report. Enbridge’s report concludes that the most effective option to mitigate anchor strikes to the dual Line 5 pipelines in the Straits is to cover both lines with a protective barrier consisting of approximately 360,000 cubic yards of gravel and rock. However, this protective barrier would not allow for visual inspection of the pipeline and would impede any external maintenance to Line 5 within the Straits. The protective barrier option also poses environmental risks including disturbance to fish habitat, disturbance to lake vegetation, impacts to water clarity, and potential exposure to toxins during its estimated 2-3 year construction timeline. Notably, this report omitted any mention or analysis of the recent anchor strike that caused an estimated 600 gallons of dielectric fluid to enter the waters of Lake Michigan and dented Line 5 underwater pipelines in three locations.

Fundamentally, the question remains: Why didn’t the State of Michigan require a comprehensive engineering study evaluating the anchor hooking risks as well as the currents, gravitational and thermal stresses of the new elevated pipeline with its 128 screw anchors as compared to the original lakebed support design?

The three reports released today but dated June 30 can be found at: https://mipetroleumpipelines.com/document/enbridge-reports-november-2017-agreement

Public comments will be accepted before July 15 regarding the action the state should take to address the future of Line 5.

###

It’s Time for the State of Michigan to Put Protection of our Great Lakes and Citizens First


Almost three years ago, with the release of Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force’s report on July 14, 2015, Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that the days of Line 5 were numbered. The public also believed that the State of Michigan planned to seek two independent studies on Line 5 to evaluate risk and alternatives.

It’s been over 1,000 days and despite plenty of distracting PR, Attorney General Schuette, the Governor, and the State of Michigan have done virtually nothing to make Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac safer from a catastrophic oil spill.

Over these 1,000-plus days, while the debate has raged on with an incomplete alternatives study and a back door deal between the Governor and Enbridge, Line 5 has:

  • lost its protective pipeline coating in over 80 locations;
  • suffered more cracking and corrosion, and even dents from an anchor strike in three locations; and
  • continued to violate its legal occupancy agreement with the State of Michigan because it is shifting dangerously on the bottomlands. 

Designed to last for only 50 years, Line 5 is now 65 years old and continues to pump 23 million gallons of oil every day from Canada and back into Canada using the Great Lakes as a high-risk shortcut. And there is no end in sight.

On April 1 of this year, the unthinkable happened; a tugboat anchor struck and dented Line 5 in three locations. Miraculously, Line 5 did not rupture, but the emergency response to transmission cables ruptured by the anchor underscored how difficult if not impossible cleaning up toxic oils and fluids can be in the wild currents of the Straits.

Enbridge is delighted that the conversation has now shifted to the option of a tunnel to replace the failing pipeline. It is the perfect distraction. It drags public attention into the weeds of whether or not constructing a tunnel is feasible from a highly technical perspective. And it steers the public, Michigan lawmakers and leaders, and candidates away from asking the right questions:

  • What is the State of Michigan as a trustee of the public interest doing right now to protect and defend the Great Lakes against the most dangerous pipeline in American?
  • How does Line 5 actually benefit Michigan’s current and future energy needs?
  • What are the feasible and most prudent alternatives to transporting oil that do not threaten the Straits of Mackinac and the 245 other water crossings in Michigan also protected by the state’s public trust duty?
  • Why is Enbridge in charge of investigating the feasibility of a tunnel when the state demanded an independent review?

Make no mistake: a conversation about a tunnel is folly and it fails to meet our state government’s legal obligation to put the public interest ahead of Enbridge’s pure profit. Dutch water expert Henk Ovink observed “If we only respond to the past, we will only get answers that fit the past.” This is exactly where we are as Enbridge tries to hijack the Line 5 conversation and bring the tunnel option center stage.  

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

We must demand that our leaders ask the right questions and seek truthful answers. Right now, the State of Michigan can revoke the Line 5 public trust easement and ensure protection of our drinking water, economy, fishing, and way of life.

Line 5 is a Great Lakes issue, a Michigan issue that affects us all. This is not about which side of the aisle you stand on. Rather, Line 5 is about our future and our children’s future, and they will never forgive our elected leaders if Line 5 ruptures on our watch.

Water unites us. Let’s let the decommissioning of Line 5 do the same.


Enough is Enough: It’s Time to Decommission Line 5


Every year, a million visitors reach the shores of Mackinac Island, also known as Turtle Island to the Anishinaabe peoples who first settled here in the Great Lakes.  Unlike most visitors, every May I make an annual pilgrimage to the island to argue the case to decommission Line 5 to our top state and federal leaders at the Policy Conference.  Against the spectacular backdrop of the Straits of Mackinac, thousands of attendees gather on this tiny island to discuss the state’s most pressing economic issues.  But every year without fail, Line 5 is not even mentioned on the agenda.  And the irony could not be greater.

Let’s talk economics for a moment: Michigan will suffer an estimated $6.3 billion blow from damage to tourism, natural resources, coastal property values, commercial fishing, and municipal water systems, according to a new study by a Michigan State University economist commissioned by FLOW.  Mackinac Island and St. Ignace will immediately lose their Great Lakes drinking water supply, and the oil spill could threaten shoreline communities and their water source from Traverse City to Alpena and beyond.

Legislators often ask about the U.P. propane issue, which continues to be a red herring and barrier to clear decisive state action.  Research by engineers working with FLOW reveals that just 1-2 rail cars or a few tanker trucks a day from Superior, Wisconsin, could replace Line 5’s U.P. propane supply.  A state-sponsored study in October found that installing a 4-inch-diameter propane pipeline from Superior to Rapid River would meet demand.  State leaders should urgently pursue these options.

And where does all the Line 5 oil go?  It turns out that 90-95 percent of Line 5’s oil comes and goes back to Canada.  What this means is that the 5-10 percent of the crude oil in Line 5 headed to the Detroit and Toledo refineries could be replaced by oil from the Capline and Mid-Valley pipelines from the south that serve the same refineries, along with crude from Northern Michigan oil fields.  Alternative pipelines exist that do not threaten our globally unique Great Lakes that contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.  

The catastrophic nature of a potential spill became clear last month when a tugboat anchor slammed into Line 5 in the Mackinac Straits and dented and gouged the Line 5 pipelines, while also severing two submerged electric cables and spilling their toxic dielectric fluid into the water.  It was at least the second significant strike of Line 5 in the Straits, according to Enbridge’s inspection data.  

So here we are, another year later with little progress towards decommissioning Line 5.  Rather, Governor Snyder had high hopes of wrapping things up with his November 2017 back-room deal with Enbridge to authorize a tunnel under both the Straits and the St. Clair River.  Significant legal questions and challenges loom, not to mention engineering trials and staggering public work costs that make this a hazardous path to walk.  Bottom line, a tunnel (even if feasible) could take 7-10 years to build and utterly fails to address the ongoing and growing imminent threat as the pipelines continue to bend and age every day.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

According to the Detroit Free Press, Line 5 is one of the “thorniest issues being grappled with by state leaders, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette.”  This, however, should not be the case.  Our state leaders, in fact, have the legal power now to decommission Line 5 by revoking the easement it granted Enbridge in 1953 to build Line 5 and occupy our waters of the Great Lakes under public trust law.  Heightened state scrutiny and enforcement are warranted given that Enbridge continues to violate its legal easement agreement with the state and the express engineering requirements designed to prevent catastrophic rupture.  For example, in 2017, it was revealed that Enbridge for three years hid the fact that Line 5 had lost its anti-rust outer pipeline coating in more than 60 places in the Straits of Mackinac. 

Enough is enough.  It’s time to decommission Line 5.  


Growing the Plastics Conversation towards Meaningful Change

A growing movement is afoot here in the Great Lakes – a broadening recognition and fierce determination to tackle the ubiquity of single-use plastics in our waters. Just in our small neck of the woods in northern Michigan, a number of nonprofit groups, concerned citizens, and conservation districts are seizing the moment and starting conversations through film, public education and strong campaigns to change the way we accept single-use plastics in our everyday lives.

In just the last three weeks, Green Elk Rapids hosted A Plastic Ocean at the Elk Rapids Cinema; the Benzie Conservation District hosted the Smog of the Sea at the Garden Theater in Frankfort; and the local chapter of The Last Plastic Straw hosted a free film screening of Straws at Michael Moore’s State Theatre, followed by a Skype conversation with filmmaker Linda Booker. Groups like Inland Seas that embraced the issue early are no doubt pleased to see their educational efforts on microplastics gain traction among students, citizens, and leaders.

Film organizers from The Last Plastic Straw – Linda Frank, Kathy Daniels, Claudia DeMarco, and Kristine Drake – rightly predicted that plastic straws are an easy way to introduce a community conversation about the impact of single-use plastics on human health, animals, and the environment. Did you know that Americans throw away over 500 million plastic straws every day? It’s staggering facts like this, coupled with visual scenes of plastics pollution, that make for a great film and engage viewers to take meaningful action. The  goal for every committed citizen and organization and every filmmaker is to harness this engagement around plastic straws and shift the way individuals and businesses think about plastic pollution and our society’s disposable culture at a macro scale. 

At FLOW, we too are committed to this global public policy initiative to prioritize protecting the human and ecological health of the Great Lakes ecosystem and combatting climate change. We know that this transition will be hard, but Rachel Carson reminds us why we must act now:

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one ‘less traveled by’-offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”  – Silent Spring, 1962.

Join FLOW’s Get Off the Bottle campaign. The response has been incredible. Students, citizens, and businesses are spreading the word with our informative blogs, stickers, yard signs, and pledge to get off bottled water and plastics.


Anatomy of A Spill in the Great Lakes

Five years ago this spring, when I first learned about Line 5, I could only imagine what a catastrophic oil spill would look like here in the heart of the Great Lakes.  Two weeks ago, we dodged a bullet as we watched a hazardous liquid spill from two neighboring transmission cables unfold. What we witnessed was an anatomy of a spill — and how truly devastating an oil spill would be.    

Here’s what we know from the April 1st spill in the Straits.  

A release of at least 600 gallons of toxic coolant and insulating fluid from electric cables owned by American Transmission Company (ATC) occurred sometime Sunday afternoon in the Straits of Mackinac.  The dielectric fluid is a mineral oil that contains a benzene compound. ATC, however, did not report the release to the Coast Guard for 24 hours.  By Monday, ATC officials were blaming “extraordinary circumstances” like ice in the water and near the shore that hindered the emergency response.  

No cause was initially identified until days later.  The cause? Vessel anchor strike. News media coverage revealed the chaotic nature of responding to this hazardous liquid spill with Coast Guard helicopters looking for oil sheens and a multi-agency unified command assembling from federal, state, tribal, and local agencies and units.  Reports attempted to allay public fears, indicating that the product was so diluted that it would not pose a threat to drinking water supply intakes. The greatest threat posed was to wildlife and shore birds swimming in possible oil floating on the water’s surface.

On April 3, Enbridge – owner and operator of Line 5 – temporarily shut down the flow of oil in the pipelines to evaluate the leak detection systems.  Ten days after the ATC accident, on April 10, Enbridge notified state and federal officials that their pipelines had suffered three dents, likely due to the same vessel activity that may have caused the damage to the ATC lines.

Hold on.  Vessel anchor strike hitting Line 5?  This was the number one threat that Dynamic Risk identified in their November 2017 alternative report to the Governor-created Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.  Ironically, the original Bechtel engineers believed that a vessel anchor strike was only “one chance in a million.”

Well, two weeks ago that one chance in a million struck.  

And finally, a growing chorus of federal and state leaders from both sides of the aisle are demanding that Line 5 be shut down until a full visual inspection has taken place.  Tribal leaders like Aaron Payment from the Sault Tribe call for more comprehensive investigation and analysis: “These old pipes need to be shut off, at least until proper investigations and the full analyses are finished.” . . .  “Governor Snyder should not be using this accident as an excuse to fast-track a tunnel.”

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

So what can we learn from this?  First, we don’t need to imagine anymore.  We know that it might take up to 24 hours before the spill is even reported.   We know exactly how difficult it would be to deploy emergency responders to contain oil in the open waters.  We know how extreme the conditions are in the Straits, even in spring. We know about the challenges of ice. We know that we can never be 100% prepared in such a dynamic, chaotic, and extreme environment as the open waters of the Great Lakes.  Second, and most important, we can’t take a second chance because of the magnitude of harm and risk that Enbridge is asking citizens of Michigan to shoulder.

Let’s do the right thing. Michigan leaders – it’s time to be proactive and shut down this 65-year-old oil pipeline before it’s really too late.    


Racing to the Top: A Reason for Hope by Liz Kirkwood

There’s no question that this is a tough time to be an environmental lawyer.  Just Google “roll back of environmental regulations” and you’ll get hits like “67 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump” or “A Running List of How Trump is Changing the Environment.”  And that’s just a tiny snapshot of what’s happening at the federal level.  Here in Michigan, in the heart of the Great Lakes, we also are witnessing a wholesale attack on groundwater laws for big ag, rulemaking authority for environmental agencies, and even the Great Lakes Compact.  

But I’m also a historian of sorts where I voraciously hunt for glimmers of hope.  I look for those stories that demonstrate human innovation, collaboration, and desire to take risks, do good for the planet, and imagine the impossible.

Lo and behold, I found one of these gems the other day.  It was a news story about five water utilities in the Great Lakes competing with one another to reduce their energy consumption and air emissions. These select water utilities are using technology to track and then shift to lower polluting power sources that reduce lead, mercury, carbon-dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide emissions from the atmosphere.  Using new technology called Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology (LEEM) designed at Wayne State University, these water utilities opt to pump water when the lower polluting electric power sources are online.  As a result, a Wisconsin utility has reduced its mercury emissions by 25 percent by pumping water at off-peak hours and alternative times in a day.      

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Imagine if we saw this kind of competition across all sectors in health, energy, agriculture, industry, food, and water.  Imagine that we all saw ourselves in a race to the top, bringing everyone up together.  Let’s keep thinking big, and in the meantime, let’s give three cheers to these communities that are leading the way: Bayfield; Detroit; Ann Arbor; North Syracuse, New York; Highland Park, Illinois.


Once More: Line 5 and the Public Trust

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.”