Straits of Mackinac 'worst possible place' for oil spill, says lead researcher.
07-10-2014 // Jordan Lubetkin
A new animated video by the University of Michigan and the National Wildlife Federation shows how devastating an oil spill beneath the Straits of Mackinac would be for the Great Lakes, wildlife, and communities. The animation shows that if an oil spill occurs, oil could reach popular tourist destinations like Mackinac Island, blanket 50 miles of Lake Huron shoreline, and reach Lake Michigan landmarks such as Beaver Island.
"If you were to pick the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes, this would be it," said David Schwab, Ph.D., research scientist at the University of Michigan Water Center, one of the foremost experts on Great Lakes water currents, and creator of the animation. "The currents are powerful and change directions frequently. In the event of an oil spill, these factors would lead to a big mess that would be very difficult to contain."
The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The 5-mile channel generates powerful currents that can create a flow of water that is more than 10 times greater than the flow over Niagara Falls.
Enbridge Inc., the company responsible for the largest inland oil disaster in U.S. history near Kalamazoo, Mich., operates a pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac. The 61-year-old pipeline is older than the Enbridge Inc. pipeline that burst in Kalamazoo and carries 23 million gallons of oil a day through the Great Lakes. The flow through the pipeline was recently increased, placing further pressure on this pipeline.
"An oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would have devastating consequences for people, fish and wildlife, and the economy. It would be an unparalleled disaster for the Great Lakes," said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. "This old pipeline needs to be replaced so that we can protect the Great Lakes from future spills."
In his study, Schwab simulated the release of contaminants at various locations and depths within the Straits of Mackinac. The simulations and video animation track an oil spill of 1 million gallons that would be released over a 12-hour period—a conservative estimate based on the size of the Mackinac pipeline and how quickly the spill would be detected and oil supply cut off. The animation shows where oil would travel in the 20 days following a spill.
An oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would be especially devastating because of its potential effects on the local tourism industry and outdoor recreation economy. According to the animation, a spill could reach both Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, popular destinations for thousands of people around the Great Lakes region and the world. Oil could also harm some of the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fisheries hurting the region’s outdoor recreation economy and those who enjoy fishing and wildlife watching.
Oil and gas pipeline spills are not unusual, accounting for hundreds of explosions, fires, seeps, and spills in the United States every year. From 2000 to 2009, pipeline accidents accounted for 2,554 significant incidents, 161 fatalities, and 576 injuries in the United States. Enbridge Inc., according to the company’s own data, had 804 spills between 1999 and 2010 in the Unites States and Canada.
The National Wildlife Federation believes the best way to remedy this threat is to replace the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.