Enbridge Line 5 rod stuck in Straits more than 5x longer than 1st reported to state

EGLE says oil company hasn’t filed a full report

By: - January 27, 2020 11:59 am

Enbridge, St. Ignace | Susan J. Demas

A steel drill rod that became lodged in the Straits of Mackinac lakebed during an equipment collapse in September is at least five times longer than embattled Canadian oil giant Enbridge previously reported to the state – and exactly how much longer is still unclear.

On Jan. 7, the Advance first reported that a metal rod segment measuring at least 40 feet long remained stuck in the lakebed. There were no plans from Enbridge to remove it. 

The company has maintained that the rod does not pose any risk to the environment or to Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, but this has done little to reassure environmental groups who point to the situation as yet another reason to decommission Line 5. Activists are planning Monday afternoon to deliver 14,000 signatures to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from Michigan residents who want the pipeline shut down.

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The segment had been part of a larger piece of equipment used in preparation work to build Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline tunnel project that was approved by then-Gov. Rick Snyder before leaving office in 2018. This is now the subject of a contentious court battle, with Attorney General Dana Nessel arguing the project is unconstitutional. So far, the courts have sided with Enbridge.

Now the company and the state of Michigan are dueling over an unexpected issue that’s arisen from the tunnel’s construction.

Enbridge didn’t inform the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) until last week that the rod actually measures “about 200 feet” in length, the Detroit Free Press reported – not the original 40 feet they had reported to the state of Michigan in November.

Now, Enbridge is saying that the length is longer than 200 feet, but will not specify by how much. The company is also claiming that “40 feet” was never a figure they used in conversations with EGLE.

Representatives from EGLE now say there are written notes that directly contradict this claim.

“Frankly, it’s unacceptable to communicate incomplete and inaccurate information. … We are disappointed with the poor communication from Enbridge on this,” said EGLE spokesman Scott Dean.

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The equipment failure that started it all

The original incident occurred on Sept. 12 during geotechnical work Enbridge began in the summer. The work was part of the company’s preparation to build a new tunnel-encased pipeline to replace their aging Line 5 oil pipeline, which has transported oil for almost 70 years under the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet.

While Enbridge was drilling into the lakebed to extract soil and rock samples, a long, slender metal pipe that it calls a “borehole rod” became stuck in the rock when the hole around it collapsed. The company was unable to retrieve the rod. 

Instead, Enbridge cut off the top segment of the rod sticking out of the lakebed and left it to rest at the bottom of the Straits, where the remainder of the pipe sat in the collapsed hole underground. The company continued on with its work. 

The state of Michigan did not become aware of this incident or the remaining mechanical debris until Enbridge called EGLE to inform the agency more than 70 days later, on Nov. 19.

On that day, EGLE Water Resources Division Gaylord District Supervisor Joseph Haas reported he received a phone call from his contact at Enbridge, Environmental Specialist Paul Turner, who informed Haas of the incident.

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This is according to Dean, who on Friday walked the Advance through the series of communications between Enbridge and the state department regarding the leftover rod.

“Mr. Haas has notes that indicate he was verbally briefed over the phone from Mr. Turner, and was told that there was 45 feet on the lakebed and 40 feet down the hole,” Dean said.

In other words, the top section of the rod (which had been cut off and left sitting on the lake bottom) measured 45 feet long; the segment left underground measured “about 40 feet long.” Haas included this information in EGLE’s subsequent violation notice to Enbridge on Dec. 3.

Then, in late December, Enbridge announced that it had found the 45-foot steel rod segment resting on the west leg of the Line 5 pipeline and had successfully retrieved it from the Straits.

No mention was made in the press release of the drill rod section still embedded in the lakebed, nor did subsequent media coverage about the retrieval include this detail until the Advance’s reporting on Jan. 7.

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In emails with Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy on Jan. 6, the Advance attempted to pin down an exact total length of the original, continuous bore rod. Was it a combined 85 feet long, as two rod segments measuring 40 and 45 feet would seem to indicate?

“I believe the total length was longer than that but I will check,” Duffy wrote on Jan. 6, before emailing again that he had reached out to the project team to request the exact number. 

Duffy did not respond to a followup email. 

Exact length still unknown

On Jan. 14, Haas, the EGLE Water Resources Division district supervisor, said he received another call from his Turner, Enbridge’s environmental specialist. This time, Turner informed Haas that the amount of drill rod embedded in the rock was “about 200 feet long.”

“Joe [Haas] expressed his frustration to them at the time” about the discrepancy, Dean said, reading from Haas’ written notes from the phone call.

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For Enbridge’s part, Duffy wrote in an email Thursday, “In discussions last week when asked for the information we let EGLE know it is more than 200 feet.”

The Advance read that email aloud to Dean, the EGLE spokesman.

“So it’s more than 200 feet,” Dean said. He confirmed that EGLE had not been aware that the rod was more than 200 feet, just “about” 200 feet.

So how much does the rod actually measure?

Duffy could not provide that information to the Advance, nor could he answer to what depth beneath the lakebed Enbridge was targeting when the drilling borehole collapsed on Sept. 12 (which could give a clue of the maximum length).

But as for the “40 feet” figure, Enbridge denies it ever gave that number to the state.

“We don’t know where the ’40 feet’ number came from, it’s not a number we used or provided,” Duffy wrote in an email Thursday. 

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Upon hearing this email read aloud, Dean interjected: “That’s not true.”

“From EGLE’s perspective, you know, Mr. Haas did not pull that number out of a hat,” Dean said.

He added that if it is the case that Turner misspoke or Haas wrote down his notes incorrectly, Enbridge did not speak up about it until its phone call to EGLE just last week.

“They did not make any effort to send us a written incident report or correct the numbers that we sent them in the [Dec. 3] violation notice,” Dean said.

He added that Enbridge has still not provided EGLE with a drilling log or full report of the incident, which could include the depths being drilled at and the amount of equipment being sent down the borehole.

Dean, who previously worked in the oil industry, said this should be “standard practice for any drilling operation.”

“These things need to be carefully documented. … The math is not that hard,” Dean said. “You don’t just start throwing rod down into the lakebed, saying, ‘Well, let’s just keep going.’”

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Enbridge maintains, as it has since reporting the incident in November, that the debris has never posed any risk.

“The rod section left in the lakebed does not pose any safety or environmental risk,” Duffy wrote in an email Thursday.

EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft agrees with this assessment, but also wrote in an emailed statement on Thursday that the state department is “very disappointed” and “expects more proactive and complete communication from Enbridge.”

“Taking more than 60 days to report the initial incident and not providing the necessary drilling log data needed to accurately calculate the length of pipe left below the lake bed is unacceptable,” Assendelft said.

Assendelft said EGLE is waiting to receive further details about the incident before determining the best course of action. He did not answer directly about whether the omission potentially violates the 1953 easement between Enbridge and the state of Michigan, which lays out the original terms of an agreement allowing Enbridge to build, operate and maintain the Line 5 pipeline.

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“We don’t we don’t dispute that the incident did not result in any type of risk to the environment or impediment to navigation” Dean said. “Our problem is that the communication of the incident was not timely, complete or indeed accurate.”

Environmental groups, which were already upset with Enbridge’s delay in reporting the initial incident, said the company’s changing stories and unwillingness to provide certain information to the state demonstrates a continued pattern of untruthfulness.

“Enbridge has no credibility and can’t be trusted to be truthful. Their lies put the Great Lakes at risk,” said David Holtz, spokesman for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition, which is composed of almost 100 environmental, tribal and human rights groups. 

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“We think we now have a 200-foot or longer broken, unstable pipe down there that’s at risk of being slammed into their oil pipeline by the Straits’ strong currents and causing a catastrophic rupture. But can we even trust that the situation is not even worse? No, we can’t and until that pipeline is shut down every day we are gambling with Michigan’s future,” Holtz said.

Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the coalition, called the new information on the rod a “disturbing revelation” and “another example of Enbridge’s pattern and practice of lying to state officials and the general public.”

“This 200-foot-long broken drill rod is yet another risk to our water posed by Enbridge’s negligence. Enough is enough. State officials must act now to shut down Line 5 before another Enbridge mistake causes a massive oil spill in the heart of the Great Lakes,” McBrearty said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.