Protesters were alone at Enbridge site for an hour due to delayed police response

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Law enforcement officials did not arrive Tuesday at an Enbridge facility where protesters were tampering with a safety valve until all individuals had already left the scene — more than an hour after protesters notified police and the company of their plans.

The demonstrators remained alone and unencumbered at an Enbridge valve facility in the thumb region Tuesday for at least an hour because of a law enforcement delay, according to the protesters' livestream of the event. 

During that time, a protester shimmied under the fence protecting the Tuscola County valve facility and used a plumber's wrench to turn a bolt he said would shut off the line. The work was accompanied by a live musician with a microphone and electric guitar. 

Enbridge said it shut the line down upon receiving the call to its emergency line. Even absent a call from protesters, the company's control center — which monitors the line 24/7 — would have registered any changes to valve status and been "alerted immediately," Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said Wednesday.

Protesters placed two calls at the start of their break-in at the Tuscola County Enbridge site: One to 911 at 12:06 p.m. Tuesday and a second almost immediately afterward to an Enbridge emergency line. 

Enbridge never called 911 after receiving the call to its emergency line that alerted the company to protesters' location and plans, according to the results of a public records request. The company, instead, maintains it called the sheriff department directly. 

The lone 911 call to Tuscola County dispatch regarding the threat against Line 5 Tuesday came from the protesters themselves who notified dispatchers that they intended to shut down Line 5. The protesters did not say where they were located and hung up as a dispatcher began to ask their location, leading law enforcement to scramble to determine which location was under threat. 

"There was confusion about where the call originated, was it even in the area," said Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene. He said there also was "concern about what exactly was happening" and what sort of police resources might be needed to address the threat. 

Enbridge said it contacted law enforcement directly — not through the 911 line — after receiving the call from protesters in order to let police know the company had shut down the line.

The Tuscola County Sheriff Department did not respond Wednesday to multiple calls and emails seeking comment. 

A protester attempts to manually shut down Line 5 at a valve station near Vassar in Tuscola County on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

Peatmoss Ellis, a 28-year-old Highland Park resident protesting at the site Tuesday, said the group contacted police to alert officers to Enbridge's "illegal" operation of the line and give police the chance to shut down the line themselves. All protesters left the scene before law enforcement ever arrived, Ellis said.

The group protesting the line is called "Up Hell's Creek Camp" and was originally formed to protest a Rover Pipeline project in Hell, Michigan. Ellis declined to name any of the other individuals in the group.

Ellis also declined to say whether the group intentionally left out its location when members called police.

Reene said some individuals were contacted in the area after the incident and were spoken to, but never arrested. 

Law enforcement still is attempting to determine who the suspects were, he said. Most of them, including the man using the plumber's wrench, were wearing face coverings. 

"Discussions have been held about the matter throughout the morning," Reene said. "The investigation continues at every level of law enforcement — local, state and federal.”

Anyone with information on the incident should call Sgt. Justin Nitz at (989) 673-8161, Reene said.

Ellis maintained police did "detain" some individual protesters.

"I asked an officer, 'Am I being detained?' And he said, 'yes,'” Ellis said. Police released Ellis when the Highland Park protester would not speak to them. 

In the protesters' 911 call, which also is contained in the group's livestream from the facility, protesters read off a statement to the dispatcher, noting Enbridge is in violation of a state order requiring the line's shutdown by May 12, 2021. The order currently is being litigated in federal court. 

The 911 call ends with: "I'm notifying you that unarmed, nonviolent people are now taking action to enforce the governor's order and simply halt operation of the pipeline."

An operator begins to ask "Where is...?" when the call drops.

In a call made to Enbridge's emergency line almost immediately after the 911 call, the protester begins the call by alerting the company that he is calling from a "safety valve station outside of Vassar, Michigan" and would start shutting down the pipeline in five minutes. 

"I'm notifying you in the hope that you will follow safety protocol and shut off the pipeline in the safest way possible before the pipeline is shut off manually," the protester said. 

Some lawmakers and environmental activists condemned the protesters' behavior Wednesday, with state Rep. Phil Green calling them "domestic terrorists" who tampered with national infrastructure. 

The Millington Republican who represents Tuscola County called on Whitmer to denounce the behavior. The protesters mentioned several times that they were carrying out the May 12 shutdown order issued by Whitmer's administration. 

“I am calling on the governor to denounce this act of terrorism and the attorney general to investigate the left-wing domestic terrorists," Green said. "Gov. Whitmer must understand that her reckless statements on Line 5 have had a direct, adverse influence that lead to dangerous methods and unlawful actions from her flock."

Ellis responded to the criticisms by arguing climate change calls for "drastic action" against pipelines like Line 5. 

"I do think that people have been trying the legal route for a long time and I’m excited about the ways Attorney General Nessel and Gov. Whitmer are trying to take this seriously,” Ellis said. "But when they disregard the law in that way, it’s time to do something about it.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com