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Michigan Democratic congressional members seek Enbridge Line 5 shutdown

Democratic members of Michigan’s congressional delegation have joined Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in calling for a temporary shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac until more is known about what damaged an anchor support on one of the line’s two legs.  

Congressional members led by Rep. Debbie Dingell, of Dearborn, sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking Chao to shut down the pipeline until a full investigation is completed and both legs of the line are deemed safe.

The request comes two days after Nessel asked an Ingham County Circuit Court judge to order a temporary shutdown.

Enbridge Energy, the Canadian petroleum company that owns Line 5, notified state officials last Thursday that an anchor support on the line’s east leg had sustained “significant damage” from an unknown source. The company stopped transporting petroleum products on both legs of the dual-span pipeline while workers investigated. 

But by Saturday afternoon, Enbridge had resumed operations of the west leg. The east leg remains closed, a company spokesman said Wednesday.

The partial reopening prompted an outcry from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who criticized Enbridge for a lack of transparency in describing the circumstances of the damage and acting “unilaterally” to reopen over her objections.

Enbridge responded that it had consulted with federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, which regulates pipelines. Those regulators had “no objections” to the pipeline’s partial reopening, the company said in a statement. 

PHMSA officials have not responded to questions from Bridge about the agency’s response to the damage, other than to say the agency is monitoring the situation and continues to communicate with Enbridge.

It is still unclear what caused the damage, or when.

In their letter to Chao, who oversees PHMSA, Michigan legislators called for a federal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the damaged anchor support. 

“All the people who call this region home deserves to know what happened and to have federal regulators undertake an investigation to determine whether imminent threat of harm to the Great Lakes exists,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. 

That includes, they said, knowing that PHMSA has inspected both legs of the pipeline, that “documentary evidence” about the incident is made public, and that there is a clear plan to address the damage and “ensure that this will not happen again.”

In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who co-signed the letter, accused Enbridge of refusing to answer “basic questions” about the incident.

“Michiganders deserve answers, and fast,” Slotkin said in the statement.

Representatives Dan Kildee of Flint, Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills also signed onto the letter.

They asked Chao to answer a series of questions by July 9 about PHMSA’s response to the damage. Many of the questions seek to gain a better understanding of how closely federal regulators reviewed the damage and what authority PHMSA has to order Line 5 shut down. 

Both Whitmer and Nessel oppose the 67-year-old pipeline, which transports 540,000 barrels daily of crude oil and natural gas liquids between Wisconsin and Ontario, and campaigned on promises to shut it down for fear that it could sustain damage that would cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Straits.

In a statement Wednesday, company spokesman Ryan Duffy defended the pipeline’s safety record. 

“Line 5 has operated reliably and safely in the Straits since 1953 and continues to do so today,” the statement read.

In an interview Wednesday with Bridge, Nessel said she is concerned that the federal agency’s review of the incident may not have been thorough. Enbridge has made clear that it believes it answers to PHMSA, and not the state, when responding to incidents like the anchor support damage.

Nessel said she believes the state has oversight authority, too, and she doesn’t believe the pipeline should resume operations until state officials have confirmed that the line is safe and that similar incidents won’t happen in the future. She wants a third-party investigation into the damage.

“Imagine if [the damage to the anchor support] had happened just a few feet lower,” she said. “We’d be figuring out how to clean up an oil spill.”

While the lawmakers await answers from Chao, Nessel and Enbridge are awaiting word from Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo about whether he will grant Nessel’s request for a temporary shutdown.

Enbridge has called Nessel’s shutdown motions “legally unenforceable” and vowed to fight them. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, Jamo had not responded to Nessel’s request.

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