Oil and Birds Don’t Mix: Potential Risks at the Straits of Mackinac


Line 5 runs under the Mackinac Straits. Photo by Michael Barera.

By Howard Meyerson

Darrell Lawson loves birding at the Straits of Mackinac. There are miles of open water and the Michigan lakeshore is gorgeous. Thousands of birds fly along Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula shorelines and funnel through the Straits during annual spring and fall migrations.

There are waterbirds, waterfowl, raptors and warblers, woodpeckers and plovers, to name just a few. More than 200 bird species have been observed at Pointe La Barbe, just west of St. Ignace. Those listings appear on eBird, the Internet site by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

“I lead all kinds of trips for Audubon and spend quite a bit of time up there,” notes Lawson, a software engineer and president of Petoskey Regional Audubon Society. “I go there 25 to 30 times in the spring and the fall. On one of my best days we saw 40-some Great Egrets. We might normally see a couple in a year. To see that many is incredible.”

Figure-1-PREP-Drill Line 5 NOAA

Enbridge Line 5. Map by NOAA.

Given the abundant and diverse bird life found at the Straits, Lawson and other Petoskey Audubon members have grown increasingly concerned about the 63-year-old Enbridge Inc. oil pipeline, known as Line 5. It runs along the lake bottom between the peninsulas.

Thousands of birds

Should either of the two 20-inch-wide, five-mile-long pipes rupture, the impact on birds could be devastating. Endangered Piping Plovers are known to nest in the area, to say nothing of the thousands of eagles, hawks, falcons, and turkey vultures that migrate across the Straits annually and the untold damage that could occur to fisheries, recreation, boating, and tourism.

Petoskey Audubon sent Governor Rick Snyder a letter in December 2015 requesting that the line be shut down until its safety and integrity can be verified, Lawson said.

“If we have an oil spill there, that oil could end up in a lot of places like Waugoshance Point (at Wilderness State Park), which is a huge birding area,” Lawson elaborated. “There is a nesting tern colony on the Coast Guard pier that is worrisome…. A huge raft of redheads also hangs out in the Straits area every fall.”

Redheaded Ducks by Skye Haas

Redhead Ducks stage on the Mackinac Straits each fall. Photo by Skye Haas.

It’s not worth it

Gail Gruenwald, executive director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey, wants to see the lines shut down eventually. Shipping oil by barge is also unacceptable. The Straits, she said, should be considered “a high-consequence” area.

“Enbridge says the pipeline is safe and in as good a shape as it was 60 years ago,” Gruenwald notes. “They put in automatic shut-off valves and now have staff in the Straits. But there is still potential for a (spill). Wind, waves, and ice can complicate or help with cleanup, but the risk to the environment is huge. We don’t want to see crude oil shipped on barges or pipelines in the Great Lakes. It’s just not worth it.”

Enbridge Inc. did not provide a representative that was authorized to discuss the subject, despite three requests over a two-week period, but Steve Keck, the U.S. Coast Guard Contingency Preparedness Specialist in Sault Ste. Marie, said, “We are worried about any spill.”

Keck is the lead planner who orchestrates oil spill cleanup exercises on those waters, the most recent in September 2015. He sits on a risk-analysis committee that meets several times a year. Its membership is comprised of state, federal, tribal, academic, and industry representatives. Together they examine facts and prioritize what would need to be done.

DNR straits oil spill

Practicing for an oil spill. Photo: Michigan DNR

“We’ve determined that in the Straits there is a very low probability (of an oil leak) but a high impact (if one occurs),” Keck said. “Water quality, tourism, fishing, state parks, historic landmarks, and protected flora and fauna—the implications are huge. If a (leak) goes west, we expect it could impact (the waters and shoreline) at Brevort or Waugoshance Point. If east, then Dunkin Bay at Cheboygan and Boblo (Bois Blanc) Island, or a combination of it all.”

Wind and waves

Wind direction, wave-height, and currents all complicate matters. Oil can be carried in one direction on the surface and a different direction below.

Two computer modeled simulations (found on YouTube) by David Schwab at the University of Michigan Water Center show where a 12-hour oil release could travel, given wind and water currents. The simulations show it spreading as far south as Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and Rogers City in Lake Huron.

Neither is realistic, according to Keck, who said they depict a one-million-gallon spill left untouched for 20 days.

Because of the shut-off valves, “the oil loss would be limited to what’s in five miles of pipeline,” Keck said, “far less than the U of M million-gallon scenario. We consider 100,000 to 200,000 gallons more realistic. How far it spreads depends on how quickly we can get contractors on the water to mitigate a spill. We would have people out there within an hour. The Coast Guard is the federal on-scene coordinator. At the state level, it’s the Department of Environmental Quality.”

Important Bird Areas

Caleb Putnam, National Audubon’s Michigan Important Bird Area coordinator, said the Straits are a huge staging area for Redhead Ducks in the fall. Many thousands gather on the water and stick around until ice-up.

The Mackinac Straits IBA for Redhead Ducks extends from the Straits to St. Martins Bay, north of St. Ignace on Lake Huron. A summer oil spill, he added, would affect colonial waterbirds like Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and Black-crowned Night Herons.

Common_tern_and_chicks USFWS

Common Terns nest in the area. Photo by USFWS.

“I’d put Common Terns at the top of the list in summer-time,” Putnam said. “They nest just west of the (Mackinac) bridge on Green Island and in downtown St. Ignace on the Coast Guard pier. Those birds all forage in the area. They could be affected directly from getting oiled or indirectly by having their food supply (fish) affected by oil in the water. I don’t see any of the birds in the area being untouched by this.”

Eagles and raptors

Ed Pike largely agrees. He is chair of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW), a nonprofit that tracks raptor migration through the Straits. MSRW counters observed more than 50,000 raptors flying across the Straits in the spring of 2015, according to Pike. Counted were eagles, hawks, falcons, and turkey vultures, all daytime flyers.

Raptors, he said, are less likely to be affected by a pipeline leak, but they are not immune. Most converge on the Straits because it offers the shortest flying distance between points of land. They feed, however, on other small mammals, fish, and birds that could be contaminated by an oil spill.

“I have concerns about raptors, but more concern about the waterbirds that use the area,” Pike said. “A rupture in the fall would be devastating. Between 5,000 and 10,000 redheads spend about two months there. Enbridge says they haven’t had a problem (with Line 5) and that’s true. But they didn’t have a problem on the Kalamazoo River either—until they did.”

Keck said the emergency response protocol calls for protecting water intakes, state parks, bird nesting areas, and protected species first. They are the top priority.

“We have identified where there are endangered species. These are where we would place protective booms first,” Keck said. “We have only so many. We don’t want oil getting into the marshes along the shoreline and bird nesting areas.”


© 2016 Howard Meyerson

Appears in March-April Jack Pine Warbler, magazine of Michigan Audubon.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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