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Schuette to sue over Line 5 anchor strike

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has said the spill of mineral oil used for insulation posed “no immediate public health threat,” but advised nearby towns to monitor their drinking water.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette plans to sue an Escanaba-based company whose shipping boat allegedly dropped an anchor that ruptured a pair of power cables and dented Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac earlier this month, his office announced Tuesday. 

The Department of Attorney General claims the Clyde S. VanEnkevort, owned by VanEnkevort Tug and Barge Inc., dragged an anchor along the bottom lands of the Straits, striking Line 5 and separate transmission cables that leaked nearly 600 gallons of mineral oil insulation fluid on or around April 1.

In a letter to the Vanenkevort firm, Schuette said “evidence indicates” the vessel's anchor hit and damaged the pair of power cables owned and operated by Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co., which shut down the lines April 3 after the leaked was detected

The straits are legally a “no anchor” zone, Schuette wrote. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said nautical maps warn against anchor drops in the area but there is no specific regulation against doing so.

“Protecting our waters is part of being a Michiganian. The waters of the Great Lakes surround our home, and we have a duty to protect them,” Schuette said in a statement.

“The vessel ignored markers in the channel and clearly identified hazards on navigational charts that make clear that an anchor should not be deployed in this area of Straits. Allowing a large anchor to drag along the bottom lands in the Straits has resulted in violations of state law, and we will hold (VanEnkevort) accountable.”

The tug company is referring all media inquiries to Darrell Wilson, a crisis response specialist with MTI Network, who confirmed VanEnkevort is actively engaged in an ongoing Coast Guard investigation but did not provide details.

“An underwater power cable was reported to be damaged on April 1st and a tug and one of our barges were among several vessels which transited the area,” Wilson said in a statement. “We are fully participating with all relevant authorities as they conduct the investigation. Due to the ongoing investigation it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Coast Guard officials have not confirmed the alleged anchor strike and declined to discuss details of their ongoing investigation. But sources familiar with the Coast Guard probe confirmed last week to The News that an anchor strike was responsible.

The probe “will determine what happened, how it happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again,” said Commander Shaun Edwards. Depending on the findings, the Coast Guard could “look to take action against a mariner’s credentials or possibly turn over findings to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation.”

Underwater cables and pipelines are “clearly marked” on nautical charts that ships use to traverse the Mackinac Straits and warn captains “to take extreme caution” in the area, said Lt. J.G. Sean Murphy.

“There’s no Coast Guard regulation that prohibits vessels from specifically anchoring in this area,” Murphy said, “but prudent seamanship would tell you to at least be careful in this area where it’s clear that pipeline and cables exist.”

In his Tuesday letter, Schuette told VanEnkevort it faces potential civil liability for the anchor strike, pointing to a state environmental protection law that prohibits discharges of harmful substances into waters, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000 a day in addition to damages to natural resources, attorney fees and more.

He also said the anchor damage has triggered common law claims, including public nuisance and trespassing on state-owned lands.

“It should be noted that this letter refers only to civil liability faced by Vanenkevort itself, and does not address potential criminal culpability,” Schuette wrote in the letter, addressed to business manager Mark Smith.

Officials have said they have not seen evidence of any major environmental impact on the straits or wildlife from the leak. But the mineral oil discharge “is injurious to the waters of the state,” Schuette said.

Line 5 fears

The anchor strike has amplified concerns over the risk of a petroleum spill in the straits, a turbulent area that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The dual pipeline, built in 1963, transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids.

Enbridge was set to launch a remote operated vehicle Tuesday to visually inspect its underwater pipeline, federal and state officials said. A unified response team is overseeing a separate and pending ROV operation, paid for by ATC, to inspect the damaged transmission cables.

“Enbridge is very pro-active, and they’ll take any steps necessary to make sure they maintain their pipeline,” said Scott Schaefer, an on-scene coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “The state works with them and we will receive the information that they collect.”

Gov. Rick Snyder last week said he wants Enbridge to decommission Line 5 and build a tunnel for a replacement line if studies show it wouldn't cause significant environmental damage.

Snyder, out of the state at the time, also directed Lt. Gov. Brian Calley to contact Schuette’s office about pursuing "legal actions" against the owner of the ship and any others who may be responsible.

“It became very clear in very short order that there was a large, barge-type vessel that drug an anchor right through that area,” Calley said Tuesday. “The maps and the science are very clear. There’s absolutely no excuse for that.”

Schuette last year called for eventual replacement of Line 5 and said then that moving the pipeline into a tunnel could allow for continuous visual inspection. Environmental groups have called for an immediate shutdown and accused Snyder and Schuette of unnecessary delays.

Calley, running for governor this year and competing with Schuette for the GOP nomination, said he supports the tunnel concept but wants to see the results of an ongoing feasibility study required under an November 2017 agreement between the Snyder administration and Enbridge.

“Having an exposed pipeline just laying across the bottom of the lake is just an unnecessary risk,” Calley said.

Based in Escanaba, Vanenkevort Tug & Barge Inc. is a privately owned bulk transport company.

Cable inspections

State and federal officials say crews have been monitoring the area around the transmission cable spill daily and have not seen any evidence of soiled wildlife, water sheen or other indications the mineral oil has cause major damage to the environment.

Response teams are using sonar to determine the layout of the cables, which they expect to take a day or two. They will then prepare to launch a remotely operated vehicle to conduct visual inspections of the site.

At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Vice Admiral Karl L. Schultz, who is nominated to be commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said it could be another couple of days until an underwater visual inspection of the cable damage will occur in the Straits of Mackinac.

“My understanding, as of an update this morning, is the remote-operated vehicle and side-scanning sonar operations might be delayed a couple days during weather,” Schultz told Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

“We share your commitment to get eyes onto the pipeline, the cables, to fully understand what’s going on down there,” Schultz added.

The inspection has been delayed since last week due to a major storm in northern Michigan over the weekend.

Peters said it was “unacceptable” that it took two weeks to get the remote-operated vehicles on site.

“They could have been in the water a lot sooner. How can we get critical assets like this to a critical place like the Straits a whole lot quicker?” asked Peters, who had pressured Enbridge to shut down Line 5 operations during the storm so as not to risk a leak.

Schultz replied that there are a finite number of the expensive ROVs, which are largely owned by the private sector and based in the Gulf Coast region.

Mineral oils are used as an insulation fluid in the 3.5-mile utility lines and were released when two of six power transmission lines carrying power between the state’s two peninsulas were damaged. The cables are more than 3 inches in diameter and sit on the lake bed about 150 to 200 feet apart. They are about 400 yards west of Enbridge’s Line 5, according to officials.

The DEQ’s Schaeffer said the mineral oil used by ATC contains benzene compounds, but laboratory testing shows it does not contain the actual benzene chemical, a known carcinogen. Testing also confirmed the insulation fluid does not contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, he said.

Four of the cables were installed in 1975 and two cables were installed in 1992. Officials for ATC said the company last conducted a submarine survey of the cables in 2016 and cable testing in 2017. 

 The company owns and operates most of the electric transmission grid in the Upper Peninsula.

Staff writers Charles E. Ramirez and James David Dickson contributed.