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March 3, 2014

Sunken Great Lakes oil pipeline raises spill fears

Increases in production in N. Dakota, Canada prompt calls for scrutiny

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A freshwater channel that separates Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas is a premier Midwestern tourist attraction and a photographer's delight, offering spectacular vistas of two Great Lakes, several islands and one of the world's longest suspension bridges.

But nowadays the Straits of Mackinac is drawing attention for something that is out of sight and usually out of mind, and which some consider a symbol of the dangers lurking in the nation's sprawling web of buried oil and natural gas pipelines.

Stretched across the bottom of the waterway at depths reaching 270 feet are two 20-inch pipes that carry nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil daily. They are part of the 1,900-mile Lakehead network, which originates in North Dakota near the Canadian border. A segment known as Line 5 slices through northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula before ducking beneath the Straits of Mackinac and winding up in Sarnia, Ontario.

The pipes were laid in 1953. They've never leaked, according to the system's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners LP, which says the lines are in good shape and pose no threat.

But a growing chorus of activists and members of Congress is demanding closer scrutiny as stepped-up production in North Dakota's Bakken region and Canada's Alberta tar sands boosts the amount of oil coursing through pipelines crossing the nation's heartland.

Concern has risen in the past year following serious spills in Arkansas and North Dakota, and as the government weighs the proposed Keystone pipeline project that would stretch from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The issue is especially sensitive in Michigan, where another Enbridge line ruptured in 2010, spewing more than 840,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River and a tributary creek.

The Straits of Mackinac epitomizes a potential worst-case scenario for a pipeline accident: an iconic waterway, ecologically and economically significant, that could be fiendishly hard to clean up because of swift currents and deep water that's often covered with ice several months a year.

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