Testing oil spill defenses

CMU researchers use Line 5 crude to boost oil-eating microbes in Straits of Mackinac

| Author: Gary H. Piatek

As debate swirls around the safety of Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 oil pipeline at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, researchers from Central Michigan University are studying ways to clean up potential environmental damage that might be caused by an accidental oil spill.

A team of seven from the Institute for Great Lakes Research is beginning experiments at the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island, focusing on using the straits’ own microbial communities to decompose oil.

It’s using the environment to clean up the environment.

The goal is to determine ways to increase the number and strength of existing natural microbes to “eat” the oil, said biology faculty member Don Uzarski, director of the institute and the biological station.

"The line is not going away. We would be foolish not to be prepared for the worst." — Don Uzarski, director of the IGLR and CMUBS “We need to find out what microbes are specific to habitats in the area and which ones can decompose the oil. We also will determine whether we can do anything like add nutrients to boost the community to quickly decompose the oil, should there be a leak,” Uzarski said.

To ensure the researchers were on target, the team told Enbridge of its research, and the company agreed to supply Line 5 oil and its chemical data sheet for use in the experiments.

The Institute for Great Lakes Research is funding the work, Uzarski said.

“The benefit of us going to Enbridge is we get to test the exact material that is in Line 5 to see what the natural communities would experience and how they would respond,” said biology faculty member Deric Learman.

More than 50 species of fish depend on the Great Lakes coastal wetlands for their entire lives, and more than 80 species at some point in their life cycles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

Line 5 carries synthetic crude oil 645 miles from Superior, Wisconsin; across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; crosses the Straits of Mackinac; and travels through northern Michigan and across the thumb to Sarnia, Ontario.

Along the way, the oil line crosses multiple rivers, lakes and streams.

“The line is not going away,” Uzarski said. “We would be foolish not to be prepared for the worst.”

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