Citing Great Lakes threat, Whitmer issues emergency Mackinac Straits anchor restriction

By: - May 15, 2019 2:10 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

A ship anchor damaged a Canadian oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac in April 2018. On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency rule meant to stop future anchor strikes.

Anchors damaging Enbridge’s Line 5 present “one of the greatest threats” to the Great Lakes, Whitmer wrote in a letter to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Daniel Eichinger. The governor directed Eichinger to create and issue rules requiring that ships traveling through the Straits verify anchors are not dragging.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks to reporters at the Lansing Brewing Co. | Nick Manes

“Preserving our Great Lakes is a top priority for our state,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I remain committed to getting the oil out of the water as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, these preventative actions will help to protect our most significant ecological and economic resource.”

Following the 2018 anchor strike, which dented Line 5 and caused a separate cable operated by American Transmission Company to leak transmission fluid, the DNR issued an emergency rule temporarily restricting anchors and other vessel equipment from that portion of the straits, and the U.S. Coast Guard “created a permanent Regulated Navigation Area” to assist, the letter said.

Whitmer said Wednesday that those measures did not go far enough.

The governor wrote in her letter to Eichinger that the “risk posed by future incidents of this sort is significant and unacceptable.”

The new emergency rule directs the DNR to create new rules requiring certain ships “to take affirmative action to verify that their anchors and other equipment are secured immediately prior to passing through the straits,” the governor wrote.

Whitmer also notified U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz of the rule in a separate letter, requesting that he also issue related rules “applying these or comparable safety measures as comprehensively as possible to vessels passing through the straits.”

Whitmer said the threat that anchors present “is only heightened by the fact that, due to erosion of the land on which these dual pipelines originally lay, considerable portions of the pipelines are now largely suspended above the surface of the bottomlands of the Straits, and therefore all the more susceptible to being hit or hooked by a passing anchor.”

The anchor restrictions will be filed under a section of existing state law that allows a governor and state agencies to issue emergency rules to protect the public health, safety or welfare of Michigan residents.

Whitmer has asked the Coast Guard to issue a similar rule for foreign ships traveling through the Straits of Mackinac, which intersects lakes Michigan and Erie near the Mackinac Bridge. Foreign ships do not fall within state jurisdiction.

The new rule comes amid renewed hope from many environmentalists that Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel may shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 after they made campaign promises to do so as candidates.

Whitmer has not yet made any moves challenging the oil company’s existing state agreement to operate Line 5.

Attorney General Dana Nessel
Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

But the governor and Nessel have together challenged a 2018 Lame Duck law approved by Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Rick Snyder which would allow Enbridge to construct a new buried oil pipeline 100 feet beneath the Great Lakes floor.

Whitmer has since been in negotiation with Enbridge officials, angering environmentalists but winning the praise of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — a powerful business lobby — as the Michigan Advance reported.

Asked by the Advance on Tuesday whether the governor will uphold her campaign promise to shut down Line 5, Whitmer repeated that her goal has always been “to get the oil out of the water at the earliest possible moment.”

Whether that means shutting down the existing pipeline and supporting Enbridge’s tunnel project is still a matter of negotiation.

“We’re trying to avoid the potential of years and years and years of litigation where the oil continues to stay in the water,” Whitmer told reporters at the Lansing Brewing Co. “We’re exploring if there’s a quick way to go about doing that and I think we’re making some progress. And we’ll probably be able to have a real assessment of where we’re headed in the next few weeks. It’s too early to tell you with any specificity, but my goal has always been to get the oil out of the water and that is paramount.”

Enbridge's Line 5.
Line 5 | National Wildlife Federation

Sean McBrearty, a spokesman for an environmental coalition opposed to Line 5, Oil and Water Don’t Mix, used the opportunity to renew the call to shut down Line 5.

“While requiring all vessels to affirm that their anchors are raised while traveling through the Straits of Mackinac will help guard against future anchor strikes, this step does not address the problem at hand,” he said in a statement. “The only way to protect the Great Lakes from a massive oil spill is to decommission Line 5 immediately.”

Michigan Advance reporter Nick Manes contributed to this report.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.