Before the Spill: How An Aging Pipeline Could Spell Disaster for The Great Lakes

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The Great Lakes are the pride of the Midwest. They provide drinking water to 40 million people, habitat to 47 species and support multiple billion-dollar industries. Yet, every single day, 23 million gallons of oil are pumped under the largest freshwater system on the planet — all through an expired pipeline.

Built and owned by the oil giant Enbridge, a Canadian company already responsible for the largest land-based spill in U.S. history, Line 5 is the stretch of pipeline that runs across the Great Lakes as a shortcut for transporting oil from western Canada to refineries in eastern Canada. The pipeline was built in 1953 and engineered to be safe for just 50 years. It’s now 65 years old.  

“Over its lifetime, Line 5 has leaked 29 times, emptying over a million gallons into the ecosystem,” says director and Michigan native Adam Wells. “As the pipe and its protective coating degrade, it’s putting the Great Lakes at risk of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.”

Adam recently debuted the short film Before the Spill to help examine the threat Line 5 poses to the Great Lakes. RANGE caught up with Adam and the film’s producer, Andy Cochrane, to talk about targeted steps we can all take to take to help shut down Line 5.

How did a Canadian pipeline end up in Michigan?

Adam: Back in the ‘50s Enbridge secured the permits to run hundreds of miles of pipeline across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan — the shortest route to their refineries. Line 5 is the Michigan section, and the most risky, because it crosses the Great Lakes. An oil spill here would be nearly impossible to clean up (40 percent containment is considered a successful clean up).


Say the pipe degrades and we have a spill…how catastrophic would it be?

Andy: Hydrodynamics experts from more than a dozen universities have spent years modeling the best and worst-case scenarios of a spill here in the Great Lakes. Worst case, 450 miles of shoreline and hundreds of thousands of acres of freshwater would be covered in oil, with $6 billion in economic damages in the first year. It’s likely that the tourism and fishing economies – both generating more than $1 billion dollars annually in this area – would never recover.


What was it that drew both of you to this project?

Andy: I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and half of my family is still there.

Adam: Michigan is home. It’s where I spent the first 22 years of my life. When I saw my friend Colin McCarthy’s documentary Great Lakes Bad Lines in 2016, I couldn’t believe this major problem existed in my home state.


What was the most striking thing that happened during filming?

Andy: The only thing more striking that witnessing the immense power and corruption of Big Oil was meeting the people who are fighting Line 5 on the ground and seeing their passion. You’ll meet some of them in the film — they’ve dedicated their lives to fighting this pipeline.

It’s easy to point out a problem. What are some targeted steps that need to happen before this pipeline can get shut down?

Adam: Fortunately, there’s a clear path toward shutting down Line 5. The pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac (across the Great Lakes) crosses public beaches and waterways, which are held in public trust. Public trust laws are about as old as the country itself. Basically, if a private interest threatens a public resource, the government has a duty to step in on behalf of the public and protect our shared resources.

Andy: Michigan’s current governor and the Attorney General of Michigan have the power to shut down Line 5, but sadly it seems like they are in Enbridge’s pocket. Fortunately, Michigan just elected a new governor and attorney general, both of who have both promised to shut down Line 5. But there’s one big obstacle stopping them: The current administration is trying to ram through a bill that would be hard to reverse. We need to block Senate Bill 1197.


Not all of us live in Michigan obviously. What can we do to help?

Andy: While people in Michigan need to be calling their senators and representatives, national awareness of this issue can help shut down Line 5. By putting more pressure on the issue, a groundswell of devoted people can and will ultimately shut this damn thing down.  

Adam: We need to make sure everyone knows that 90 percent of the United States’ surface freshwater is at risk due to a foreign oil company. Educate yourself, share this film with others, and visit to use their platform to take action.

What’s the good news in all this?

Adam: Gretchen Whitmer was just elected Governor of Michigan, and while campaigning she vowed to shut down Line 5. That’s great news, and something everyone on the frontlines of this fight is celebrating! That said, we still have to get to January before she’s in office and, in his lame duck session, existing Governor Rick Snyder is fast tracking a bill that would keep Line 5 in the Great Lakes for decades to come. So let’s get to work.


For next steps, visit Before The Spill’s Action Page to contact your representatives and download resources for sharing the film with your friends, family and followers.

Images courtesy of Beth Price.

XX Johnie Gall