Whitmer aims for Monday tunnel deal as report shows human error caused Line 5 anchor strike

By: - June 5, 2019 4:19 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

A ship anchor that damaged Enbridge’s Line 5 and separate transmission cables in the Straits of Mackinac caused more than $100 million worth of damage after a skeleton crew last spring unknowingly dragged an anchor from the Soo Locks almost as far as Indiana.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

The damage likely was caused by human error and mechanical failure, according to an accident brief released on Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The brief comes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer informed Enbridge CEO Al Monaco this week that she intends to reach a “conceptual agreement” on Enbridge’s separate tunnel project proposal by next Monday.

The crew aboard the Clyde S. VanEnkevort/Erie Trader boat had unknowingly released an anchor that dragged along the bottom of the lakebed on April 1, denting Line 5 and rupturing American Transmission Company cables that leaked roughly 800 gallons of transmission fluid into the Straits of Mackinac, the federal brief states.

A separate U.S. Coast Guard report that could shed further light on the incident remains unreleased. The event stoked fears of a more severe spill along Line 5, which pumps about 23 million gallons of heavy crude oil through the straits each day.

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

“Anchor strikes remain a very real threat,” said Tiffany Brown, the governor’s spokeswoman. “While Governor Whitmer has taken steps to reduce that risk, it cannot fully be eliminated, which is why the governor is seeking to close the pipeline that runs through the Straits as soon as possible. An oil spill in the Great Lakes is unthinkable.”

Last month, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) released a video with the permission of the Coast Guard that revealed damage to the pipeline from the anchor incident.

Whitmer issued an emergency rule in May asking ships to ensure they’re not dragging anchors. But the governor’s office says the spill risk remains.

“What law would ever prevent that kind of human error from occurring again? What law is going to prevent defective equipment?” said David Holtz, Sierra Club Michigan chapter legislative and political director.

Enbridge Mackinaw Station, Mackinaw City | Susan J. Demas

Holtz noted that the report indicated 6-to-8 foot waves and severe wind caused the ship to drop anchor in the first place. He questioned whether Enbridge violated an agreement to shut down Line 5 in such severe weather conditions.

“Hopefully the Coast Guard report will answer that,” Holtz added, referring to the pending second federal report into the anchor strike.

The Sierra Club has campaigned to shut down the 66-year-old Line 5 for years.

Under Whitmer, that may happen sooner than promised to GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, whose administration accepted an estimated seven-to-10-year construction period for the company’s utility tunnel that would enclose a new pipeline to replace Line 5.

After Whitmer said that timeline wasn’t acceptable, the company said it could finish construction five years faster — as soon as 2024.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, May 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

But “the reality is that this project would likely experience construction delays and potential litigation,” Whitmer wrote to Monaco June 3. “These delays could extend completion of the tunnel by several years.”

The governor reminded Monaco that Attorney General Dana Nessel has publicly stated her intention to begin legal proceedings to shut down Line 5 if a satisfactory deal isn’t reached sometime this month, as the Michigan Advance previously reported.

“As my staff have mentioned to Enbridge officials, the Attorney General has independent authority to pursue litigation against Enbridge. As such, it would be imprudent and shortsighted to ignore her concerns with the continued operation of Line 5,” Whitmer wrote.

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in a statement that the $500 million, self-financed tunnel project “is the best solution” to potential anchor strikes or other accidents.

“The concrete-walled tunnel is to be placed approximately 100 feet below the lake bed, reducing the risk of a spill in the Straits to virtually zero and eliminating the risk of an anchor strike,” Duffy said. “Enbridge believes the Straits tunnel project is the best way to protect the community, the Great Lakes, and the environment while safely meeting Michigan’s energy needs.”

Whitmer wins Michigan Chamber kudos for Line 5 talks

Nessel said in a statement Wednesday that the new federal report confirms her opinion that “it is incredibly dangerous for Line 5 to continue operating in the straits.

“And even though Governor Whitmer has taken action to prevent anchor drops in the Straits, the 2018 incident was an accident that even the boat’s captain was unaware of,” she continued.

“All of the enforcement mechanisms in the world won’t prevent a tragedy from an unintended, accidental anchor strike. We are prepared to take legal action to decommission Line 5 as quickly as possible to protect the freshwater resources that are absolutely critical to our state.”

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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.