Whitmer rule aims to prevent Line 5 damage, as anchor strike harm revealed

Enbridge provided this photo documenting damage to the east pipeline of Line 5 caused by an April 2018 anchor strike to a U.S. Senate committee.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered state officials to issue rules requiring large vessels to verify that no anchors are dragging before passing through the Straits of Mackinac to prevent damage to the Line 5 oil and natural gas pipelines.

Her directive Wednesday to the state Department of Natural Resources follows an anchor strike in April 2018 that severed two underwater transmission lines and dented the east and west fuel pipeline spans of Line 5.  

Whitmer asked the U.S. Coast Guard to hold foreign vessels to the same standards.

“I remain committed to getting the oil out of the water as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, these preventative actions will help to protect our most significant ecological and economic resource," said Whitmer, who has vowed to shut down the pipelines.

Her order came as new underwater inspection video from three weeks after the anchor strike was released. The footage shows tracks in the lakebed where an anchor was apparently dragged along the lake bottom before hitting and scoring the pipeline structure. 

The video and related photos were provided by Line 5 operator Enbridge Energy Co. last fall to the U.S. Senate on Commerce Science and Transportation in response to a request by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, at a field hearing in Traverse City.

Line 5 transports about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas a day through the Upper Peninsula, including a four-mile stretch through the Straits of Mackinac. 

Environmental activists have long called for Line 5 to be shut down, warning an accident like the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River could devastate the Great Lakes.

Last year's anchor strike released roughly 600 gallons of dielectric fluid, a type of mineral oil, from utility lines owned by Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co.

Peters' office publicly posted the video online this week after he was assured by the U.S. Coast Guard that releasing it would not undermine the agency's federal investigation into the anchor strike.

“An oil spill in the Great Lakes would have catastrophic consequences to Michigan’s environment and economy. Michiganders deserve to know the full extent of the damage to Line 5 from last year’s anchor strike — because there’s simply too much at stake," Peters said in a statement. 

"I urge the Coast Guard to swiftly conclude their investigation into last year’s anchor strike and to release the investigation’s results publicly given Michiganders understandable concerns."

Enbridge provided this photo documenting damage to the west pipeline of Line 5 caused by an April 2018 anchor strike to a U.S. Senate committee.

The Coast Guard has completed its investigation but has not released it. The report was approved by district staff in early May and forwarded to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, Master Chief Alan R. Haraf told The Detroit News last week.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder a year ago had approved an emergency rule barring anchors in the waterway, and the Coast Guard in October said ships may not drop anchor in the Straits of Mackinac unless they have permission.

Snyder’s rule aimed to prevent “an inadvertent anchor strike,” while Whitmer’s emergen directive will force boats “to take affirmative action to verify that their anchors and other equipment are secured immediately prior to passing through the Straits,” the governor wrote in her Wednesday letter to the DNR.

Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for Enbridge, said there have been no anchor incidents since the April 2018 accident. 

Enbridge reinforced the damaged areas of the pipeline by spring or early summer 2018, and has provided funding for cameras to allow the Coast Guard to have real-time monitoring of ship traffic at the Straits, Duffy said. 

Snyder had finalized an agreement with Enbridge last year for the construction of a shared utility corridor beneath the straits to house Enbridge’s controversial pipeline and potentially other transmission infrastructure.

Whitmer halted work on the project in March after Attorney General Dana Nessel ruled the plan approved by Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature was invalid.

Whitmer reopened talks with Enbridge shortly afterward, emphasizing that her goal was to “get the pipeline out of the water earlier.”

"Going forward, the Line 5 tunnel project in the Straits would eliminate the possibility of an anchor strike, because the pipeline would be inside a tunnel with foot-thick concrete walls, approximately 100 feet below the lakebed," Duffy said. 

Former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed suit last year Escanaba-based VanEnkevort Tug and Barge Inc., alleging its tug was responsible for the alleged anchor strike.

Nessel praised Whitmer's action Wednesday to prevent another anchor strike. 

"This issue is of grave concern to me as my office only recently learned of several additional anchor strikes that have occurred on other lines in the Straits," Nessel said in a statement. 

"This is an essential but interim measure as we find a long-term solution to permanently shut down Line 5.”