Harsh weather delays leak line inspections in straits

April 12, 2018 GMT

Harsh winter weather is preventing an underwater inspection of damaged power transmission lines in the Straits of Mackinac as well as a closer look at dents in the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline as lawmakers express worries about keeping the energy lines running.

Inclement weather will delay the deployment of American Transmission Co.’s remotely-operated underwater vehicle that would have captured images of the damage that caused last week the leak of an estimated 600 gallons of mineral oil into the straits until early next week, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. (junior grade) Sean Murphy said.

“They can’t deploy it this weekend because the water is too hazardous and it wouldn’t be safe for the responders,” Murphy said.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a major winter storm to hit northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula Friday through Sunday. Some areas are expected see “significant accumulations of heavy/wet snow” and others freezing rain, which may cause power outages, the service said in a Thursday bulletin.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has said the leak from the two cables belonging to the Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co. posed “no immediate public health threat.” The cables were shut down shortly after the leak was identified, and Murphy said officials have yet to observe an oil sheen or impact to surrounding wildlife.

The Coast Guard has said “vessel activity” may be responsible for the damage to two cables and asked other companies owning and operating lines beneath the straits to assess any damage to their infrastructure. It launched a marine investigation that a spokesman said Wednesday could take “months.”

Enbridge Energy, which operates and owns Line 5, informed state officials Tuesday that “three small dents” exist in the company’s pipeline but pose no threat to causing a leak. The developments prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to urge an imminent shutdown of Line 5 if studies find that it is physically and environmentally safe to building a tunnel below the straits to carry the oil and liquid natural gas the pipeline now supplies.

At a Thursday hearing, Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township said it would be “irresponsible” to defer to the judgment of the federal pipeline agency and the state on reopening Line 5 before the Guard has performed any visual underwater inspections.

“It would be my belief that the Coast Guard would want to know that. Is that correct? You’d want to know exactly what’s happening?” Peters asked a Coast Guard leader.

Rear Admiral Linda Fagan replied that she didn’t know what information the local Guard command was relying on to make decisions and would get back to Peters with an answer.

“I know visual verification is key in a response such as this,” said Fagan, who is deputy commandant for operations, policy and capabilities. “I’m certain the team is working to do that, but I don’t know the timeframe that that’s on, sir.”

Peters said many in Michigan are asking questions and “very concerned.”

If there were a Line 5 leak, “the economic and environmental impact would be devastating,” he said.

Both American Transmission and Enbridge had filed response plans with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that they are required to follow, said Murphy, who is based in northern Michigan.

“We’re overseeing their response and if the unified command has any specific issues with their response, we’ll address it and move forward,” he said.

Murphy said the damage to Enbridge’s line could be related to the vessel activity that may have caused damage to the American Transmission cables. He would not provide further details on the marine casualty investigation.

Enbridge confirmed dents to the east and west segments of Line 5 Tuesday with multiple tools that inspected the inside of the pipelines, company spokesman Ryan Duffy said. The American Transmission leak was identified when two electrical lines tripped offline April 1 and, shortly after, alarms alerted the company of changing readings on pumps that send the insulating fluid through the cables.

Duffy said Enbridge also plans to deploy an underwater vehicle with a camera in the next few days, weather permitting.

Snyder’s office said Wednesday the damage likely had been caused by an unidentified ship’s anchor. His office has requested Attorney General Bill Schuette pursue legal actions against the owner of the ship and others who may be responsible.

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, blasted what he calls poor communications by Enbridge and American Transmission and called for the immediate shutdown of Line 5 until there is an independent verification of no potential for the risk of a leak.

“Taking Enbridge at their word that everything is operating as it should is not good enough. There is simply too much conflict and too great a risk to our state’s natural resources,” Schmidt said in a Wednesday statement.

Underwater pipelines and cables are clearly labeled on nautical maps used by shipping companies, and the ships are “highly recommended” not to drop anchor in these areas, the senator said he was assured by the Coast Guard.

Both Enbridge and American Transmission said they have been in contact and working with the state, Coast Guard and federal pipeline agency regarding the incident.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also expressed frustration Thursday, saying he has raised his concerns directly with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Michigan and Coast Guard representatives.

“There is no excuse for this ship’s action and no excuse for not protecting the straits and our Great Lakes,” Upton said in a statement.

“In the coming days and weeks, we’ll continue working hand-in-glove with all involved to ensure everything is safe. We are all watching.”

Upton on Thursday asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry for his department to study the potential impact of a Line 5 outage on consumers, noting the pipeline leads to the Marathon refinery in Detroit and the oil is wholesaled throughout the Midwest. Perry accepted.

“I think our common sense collectively tells us that if we lose a major line to a refinery like that, it’s going to have a negative impact — not only on the consuming public but also ... on the national security side of it,” Perry said at a House hearing.

“You all have major military bases in that part of the country, and it could have a negative impact on their ability to have fuel available to the security of this nation.”

Murphy said roughly 270 gallons of the estimated 800 gallons of mineral oil remaining in the line has been removed through vacuum trucks on shore.

“They’re essentially vacuuming out oil from a 1-inch diameter cable that spans three-and-a-half miles,” Murphy said.