Snyder says ship dents Line 5, wants shutdown

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder wants to shut down Line 5 after his office said Wednesday that an unidentified ship’s anchor likely damaged the line under the Straits of Mackinac and another line that caused fluid to leak into the water last week.

The governor, who is out of the state, called on Lt. Gov. Brian Calley to contact the office of state Attorney General Bill Schuette to pursue “legal actions” against the owner of the ship and others who may be responsible.

Snyder said he wants to require Enbridge to decommission Line 5 and construct a tunnel for a replacement pipeline if studies show the tunnel could be built and wouldn’t cause “significant environmental damage.” Schuette said last June he wants to set up a timetable for the shutdown but hasn’t named a target date.

Enbridge, which operates and owns Line 5, informed state officials that “three small dents” exist in the pipeline due to the anchor but pose no threat to causing a leak, the governor’s office said.

Line 5 is a 645-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline that carries about 23 million gallons oil and liquid natural gas along the bottom of the straits and through Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, starting in Superior, Wisconsin, and ending in Sarnia, Ontario.

Sean Murphy, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard command in Sault Ste. Marie, said Wednesday the fluid leak and Line 5 dents “may have been caused by some sort of vessel activity, and that vessel activity is under investigation.” The probe could take months, he said.

Murphy declined to release information about the suspected ship or the company that owns it because of the investigation.

The Coast Guard will decide “when to publicly release information regarding their findings,” Snyder spokesman Anna Heaton said in an email, adding that the Snyder administration wants the state to be prepared to “initiate” legal action “once the responsible party or parties are identified.”

Analysts contracted by the state of Michigan in 2017 found that the most dominant threat to the Line 5 pipeline is “anchor hooking” from ships that inadvertently deployed their anchors while passing through the straits. Researchers separately estimated a Line 5 spill could affect roughly 20 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, primarily Cheboygan, Emmet and Mackinac counties.

In November, Snyder reached an agreement with Enbridge requiring the replacement of a section of Line 5 under the St. Clair River and a study exploring the possibility of replacing the entire pipeline with a new one in a tunnel. Enbridge is supposed to evaluate three options for eventually replacing Line 5 by June.

But Snyder said in a Wednesday news release that he wants to “accelerate the identification of anchor strike mitigation measures” and the evaluation of alternatives for pipeline replacement.

“An anchor strike was the largest risk identified in a previous independent analysis of the Enbridge pipeline, which is apparently what happened in the Straits last week,” the governor said. “We need to accelerate these studies so they are completed as soon as feasibly and responsibly possible. We need the right answers, but we need them as soon as we can get them so that we can take action faster to protect the Great Lakes.”

“There is no excuse for the ship’s actions, which risked devastating environmental harm as well as the loss of vital infrastructure for communications, electrical power and heat for residents of the Upper Peninsula,” Calley said in a statement.

Since the Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co. cable leak last week — in which mineral oil was released into the straits — Schuette said he has been “determining what action to take to protect the waters and lands of the Great Lakes state.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has said the spill of oil used for insulation posed “no immediate public health threat,” but nearby community leaders were notified of the issue.

“With new information regarding an anchor strike causing the leak and possibly damaging other lines, my office is determining what legal action may be appropriate,” Schuette said in a statement. “We will be working with the Department of Environmental Quality, and the United States Coast Guard as well as other state and local authorities to safeguard the waters of Michigan.”

Schuette and Calley are running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to replace Snyder, who is term-limited.

The Democratic House minority leader took a shot at Schuette in the wake of Wednesday’s developments.

“You know you have absolutely no moral authority when the administration that caused the Flint water crisis has to ask you to take action to address a new potential water crisis in the Straits of Mackinac,” said Rep. Sam Singh of East Lansing about Schuette. “We’ve known for a while that he is more interested in politics than people, but it is time for the attorney general to get to work and protect what clean water we still have after seven years of Republican mismanagement in our state.”

Enbridge officials said following inspections of Line 5 in recent days, they confirmed dents in the east and west segments of the pipeline.

“A review of all leak detection systems and available data indicates the structural integrity of the pipelines has not been compromised,” according to an Enbridge statement.

When asked about the governor’s request that Line 5 be shut down, an Enbridge spokesman said, “We are actively studying the option of a tunnel for replacing the Straits section of Line 5. The state has asked us to provide them with a report on that option, and we are committed to doing that.”

The Canada-based energy company said it will be updating the state, Coast Guard, and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and other plans going forward.

Environmentalists have been concerned about the integrity of the 65-year-old Line 5 and have urged its immediate shutdown.

The Coast Guard said Wednesday that Enbridge Energy contacted it about the dents in Line 5. Coast Guard marine scientists and Department of Environmental Quality analysts have not spotted any signs of pollution from the mineral oil leak in their daily boat surveys and overflights.

The Coast Guard and state agencies plan this weekend to use thermal scanning technology and a remote-control underwater vehicle to evaluate the damage to the utility lines owned by American Transmission Co. Government officials said they are monitoring the weather to ensure these operations can safely proceed.

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