‘It’s terrifying’: Toledo Refining Co. workers on edge as fate of pipeline remains uncertain

Ohio Senate unanimously passes resolution urging Michigan gov. to keep pipeline open
Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 5:30 AM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Tim Marshall moved to Toledo 20 years ago to take a job at the Toledo Refining Company. He met his wife in the Glass City, where they now raise their two teenage daughters.

Justin and Jacob Donley followed in their father’s footsteps to work at the refinery where he’s been now for three decades. Tira Houston relies on her job at the refinery to provide for her daughter and extended family.

All of them worry that any day could be their last at the refinery that relies heavily on the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline for its daily operations.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave Enbridge a May 12 deadline to shut down, citing environmental concerns. A stretch of the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac is of particular concern for Whitmer.

She’s called it a “ticking time bomb” for an oil spill that could spread into the channel which links Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It’s also drawn criticism from environmental groups who fear a catastrophe in the Great Lakes if one of the lines rupture.

Enbridge insists the pipeline is safe. It’s also announced plans to replace the current pipeline through the Straights of Mackinac with a new line.

The fate of the pipeline is ultimately up to the courts. A judge will have to decide if the debate should be heard in a Michigan court or a federal court. Enbridge says it won’t shut down until a judge orders it to cease operations.

Elected officials in Canada and Ohio are both urging Whitmer to keep the pipeline open. Enbridge, a Canadian company, provides oil through Line 5 to refineries in Ontario and Quebec. It also supports energy efforts in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

The Ohio Senate this week unanimously passed a resolution urging Whitmer to stand down.

“We need to send a message to Michigan’s governor not to mess with Ohio,” said Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green).

Lawmakers are concerned about the economic impact the state would suffer without the pipeline, including significant job loss.

“I lose sleep not just for me, my girls, my wife, and my family, but for all of the people that this will touch,” Marshall said. “It will harm hundreds, if not thousands of people.”

Ohio senators cited an independent study from the Consumer Energy Alliance to discuss their economic concerns. It found Ohio would suffer two-thirds of the economic losses if the pipeline shut down between Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. The CEA report estimates Ohio would see $13.7 billion dollars in economic losses without Line 5.

Among other objectives, the Toledo Refining Company supplies jet fuel to several airports, including in Indianapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Toledo. Without Line 5, it wouldn’t be able to sustain its current operations, according to Justin Donley, the president of the refinery’s union, United Steel Workers Local 912.

“That line supplies the majority of the feedstock that we run,” he said. “If Enbridge Line 5 shuts down, there’s a very high likelihood that our refinery would shut down.”

Meetings have been ongoing since 2019 about the possible shutdown of Line 5. Tensions are even higher at the company now that it’s up to the courts to decide whether or not it stays operational, Donley said. He’s been part of meetings with environmental groups to see where both sides fall on the issue.

“It’s not on me to say they’re wrong to be concerned. I don’t share their concern,” Donley said. “I think that’s for no reason other than what my background is -- I’ve been working in the refining industry for 18 years. I work on safety systems. Those safety systems exist on this pipe.

“I honestly believe if they understood it to the level that we understand it -- those of us who work in this industry -- they’d feel a lot more comfortable with the idea that this oil is in a pipe, because that is the safest place for it to be.”

His brother started working at the refinery six years ago after initially pursuing a career in finance. He never imagined he would be happy at the job but turned out to be wrong.

“It’s terrifying,” Jacob Donley said at the prospect of seeing the company that’s supported his family for decades close or lay off hundreds of employees.

“It’s something that people in the community have relied on for decades to support their families, their communities, the mom-and-pop shops in the area where people who work at the refinery take their hard-earned money,” Jacob Donley said.

Houston says the company is a major fabric in the East Toledo community. That’s something she doesn’t want to see end.

“If this line were to shut down, that money that we put into the community, the money we give back, the money we spend in the area, would all be gone,” Houston said. “That would be a huge loss for this side of the city of Toledo.”

It’s hard to ignore the possibility of losing the refinery when she goes to work.

“I have a daughter to raise,” Houston said.

But she says she’s committed to working with her fellow employees to keep fighting to keep Line 5 operating.

“Everyone has lost sleep thinking about Line 5 at the refinery,” Houston said. “At a moment’s notice, we could lose the line. We’ve all discussed what it could do, but we’ve been trying to not lose that much sleep because tomorrow we have to get up and fight harder to get people to understand.”

Marshall describes the mood among staff as “nervous tension.” He said he recognizes the environmental concerns about the pipeline, but his position is different. He hopes the Whitmer administration and Enbridge can come to a mutual understanding and end the days that employees work in limbo.

“We hope cooler heads will prevail,” Marshall said. “We hope people will look at it the way we look at it: This is about jobs, the economy, and a facility.”

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