Whitmer: Detroit River scare points to Line 5 risk

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first keynote address as governor at the Mackinac Policy Conference Thursday on Mackinac Island.

Lansing — An unmoored Canadian freighter that dropped its anchor near two pipelines beneath the Detroit River earlier this week reinforces the need to get the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline out of the Great Lakes, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday.

State and Canadian officials said there was initially concern that the anchor may have hit the Detroit River pipelines during the Monday incident.

But they confirmed Thursday there is no indication there was any damage to or product released from either the liquid ethane pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan of Texas or the propane pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada. 

The pipelines was “de-energized” as a precaution, but “there is no known contact or rupture,” said Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

"As a precautionary measure, both pipelines are being drained of product and are out of service," said Sarah Kiley, communications officer for Canada's National Energy Board.

The agency has been in close contact with the pipeline owners, who are cooperating with each other and the ship owner, Kiley said. They've used dive teams and side sonar scans to assess any potential damage, she said.

"Before these lines can be returned to service, we must be convinced that it is safe to do so," Kiley added. 

The Windsor Star reported the Detroit River’s Canadian shipping channel was temporarily closed Monday after ropes tying the 730-foot freighter to shore snapped in Sandwich town, which is across from Zug Island in Detroit.

The ship, owned by the Algoma Central Corp., was reportedly carrying 25,000 tons of gravel and dropped its anchor when it became unmoored.

The Kinder Morgan ethane pipeline is buried below the riverbed at a depth of between nine and 10 feet, Kiley said. The agency was awaiting confirmation from Plains Midstream on the submerged depth of the second pipeline.

The anchor dropped about 100 feet downstream from the pipelines but did not strike them, nor was it “lodged between” two pipelines as suspected when crews were initially unable to drag it back on board, Greenberg said.

Crew aboard the freighter did not know where the pipelines were located and ended up cutting the line but left the anchor in place “out of an abundance of caution,” she added.

U.S. Coast Guard officials had downplayed the nature of the incident earlier Thursday, but the state had received mixed signals about the circumstances and whether there had been an anchor strike

Line 5 debate

Whitmer referenced the scare in an interview with reporters about the state’s ongoing stalemate with Enbridge Energy, the Canadian oil giant that owns the 66-year-old Line 5 oil and gas dual pipeline that run along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

An inadvertent Line 5 anchor strike in April 2018 left minor dents in the pipeline and ruptured nearby transmission cables that ended up leaking roughly 800 gallons of dielectric mineral oil.

The incident caused more than $100 million in damage and exacerbated fears of a Line 5 rupture, which environmentalists warn could be devastating to the Great Lakes.

The Detroit River scare “just confirms for me that we have to take this very seriously, and an oil pipeline going through the Straits of Mackinac is an incredibly risky thing to do,” Whitmer said. “We’ve got to move forward in protecting the Great Lakes.”

Enbridge sued the state earlier this month in an attempt to force compliance with an agreement brokered under former Gov. Rick Snyder to move Line 5 into a new tunnel beneath the lake bed, a project the company has promised to pay for.

The Whitmer administration has blocked any state participation on the project since a late March legal opinion by Attorney General Dana Nessel, who deemed the enabling legislation unconstitutional.

Nessel has vowed to try to shut down the Straits pipeline if Whitmer is unable to negotiate a deal with Enbridge by the end of June.

Enbridge has denied that it walked away from the negotiating table with Whitmer, who wants a faster construction timeline for the tunnel and a date certain for Line 5 removal.

“They could come back (to the table). We’ll see,” Whitmer said Thursday. “But I want that line out of the water.”

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the Detroit River incident is further evidence of “the tunnel being the solution” for Line 5 going forward.

“It would be completely protected from any kind of anchor issue being 100 feet below the ground,” he said.

There have not been any new developments in the stalled negotiations with the Whitmer administration, and there are not any planned talks “scheduled at the moment,” Duffy said

'A plan on the table'

The governor said her staff has not had any contact with Enbridge in recent days but noted she has talked Line 5 with state legislators and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who she sat down with last weekend at the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers Leadership Summit in Milwaukee.

The Toledo Blade reported Tuesday that officials at the East Toledo refinery in Ohio fear that a Line 5 shutdown could force closure of their operation, which relies on crude oil delivered by the pipeline.

Line 5 also helps supply Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a large share of the propane residents use to heat their homes in winter. Whitmer recently created a task force to study Upper Peninsula energy alternatives in the event of a Line 5 shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, weighed in on the Detroit River scare Thursday afternoon on Twitter. 

"There’s a plan on the table to ensure Line 5 is safe from incidents like this AND Michiganders keep receiving the propane they need to heat their homes, without costing taxpayers a penny," he said, referencing the tunnel deal. "Closing down the line will only keep propane from residents and spike the price of gas."