Report: Tug dragged 6-ton anchor for days after denting Line 5 pipeline

Straits of Mackinac

A May 31 report by the National Transportation Safety Board is raising new calls to shut down the Line 5 energy pipeline that passes the Straits of Mackinac.

The crew of a barge and tugboat whose six-ton anchor struck Line 5 last year in the Straits of Mackinac had no clue it was being dragged on the lake bed until nearly two days later near Indiana.

The anchor dented Enbridge Energy’s dual Line 5 oil pipelines and sliced Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co.’s three underwater power cables, causing $100 million in damage to the cables and releasing 800 gallons of mineral oil into the Straits on April 1, 2018.

The details are among those in a new National Transportation Safety Board report on the anchor strike, which comes as Michigan officials negotiate with the owners of the 66-year-old pipeline about its future.

The report said human and mechanical errors led to the mishap, specifically “the failure of the anchor detail to secure the barge’s starboard anchor, and the improper adjustment of the anchor brake band.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the report “reinforces what we already know: It is incredibly dangerous for Line 5 to continue operating in the Straits.”

“All of the enforcement mechanisms in the world won’t prevent a tragedy from an unintended, accidental anchor strike. We are prepared to take legal action to decommission Line 5 as quickly as possible to protect the freshwater resources that are absolutely critical to our state,” the Democrat said in a statement Wednesday.

The Erie Trader barge and Clyde S. VanEnkevort tugboat caused $100 million in damages when their anchor dragged the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac last year, striking Line 5 and three underwater cables. (Courtesy photo)

VanEnkevort Tug & Barge, the Escanaba-based company that owns the vessels, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation and a U.S. Coast Guard investigation. Nessel’s Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette, sued the company over the incident last year. Enbridge sued as well. 

The National Transportation Safety Board, in its May 31 report, found several problems aboard the vessels as they carried iron ore through the Straits last April en route from Duluth, Minn., to Indiana Harbor.

Among the findings:

  • The Erie Trader barge and Clyde S. VanEnkevort tugboat traveled through winds speeds above 30 knots and waves ranging from 6 to 8 feet on April 1, 2018;
  • The captain told investigators he could not determine how long and where the anchor dragged, but underwater footage showed drag marks along the lake bottom just before the Line 5 pipeline about 230 feet below the surface. The anchor damaged three of the Wisconsin utility’s six transmission cables supplying power to the Upper Peninsula. Two were damaged so badly they had to be replaced. Three minor dents were found in Line 5, which was otherwise structurally sound.
  • Because it was Easter, most of the 14 crew members had the day off, meaning no one was working the barge’s deck.
  • Crew members on watch duty were ordered to clear and secure the barge’s two anchors as they traveled through the Gros Cap Reef in Ontario before approaching the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie. One crew member told investigators he did not secure the starboard anchor even though he told his superiors otherwise.
  • A procedure used to test an anchor break that had been recently replaced “was inadequate for determining the brake’s full functionality.”

The report comes amid uncertainty over whether Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will greenlight Enbridge’s plan to replace the pipelines in the Straits and bury the new pipe in a $500 million bedrock tunnel — a plan Enbridge says would protect the pipeline from future anchor strikes but environmentalists oppose.

Enbridge last year signed a series of agreements with Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder, about a tunnel for the pipeline,  which transports up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day between Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario.

In March, Whitmer ordered state agencies to stop work on the project amid questions surrounding the deal’s constitutionality.

Whitmer has set a June 10 target for a new agreement with Enbridge. Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, has promised to take Enbridge to court if negotiations fall through.

In a text message on Wednesday, Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s press secretary, said “anchor strikes remain a very real threat.”

“While Gov. Whitmer has taken steps to reduce that risk, it cannot fully be eliminated, which is why the governor is seeking to close the pipeline that runs through the Straits as soon as possible. An oil spill in the Great Lakes is unthinkable,” Brown added.

Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesman, called a tunnel, which Enbridge would fund, “the best solution moving forward” to protect the pipeline and serve the Upper Peninsula’s energy needs.

“The concrete-walled tunnel is to be placed approximately 100 feet below the lake bed, reducing the risk of a spill in the Straits to virtually zero and eliminating the risk of an anchor strike,” he told Bridge in an email.

Enbridge said last week it could complete the tunnel by 2024, shaving years off previous estimates.

Whitmer has taken other steps to address anchor threats in the Straits.

Last month, she directed the Department of Natural Resources to file an emergency rule requiring large vessels to verify they aren't dragging anchors when passing through the Straits.

Snyder's administration last year barred ships from anchoring in the Straits, and the Coast Guard proposed similar rules. But in a letter to DNR Director Dan Eichinger last month, Whitmer called the previous efforts "an important first step" that "did not address the core threat" of the 2018 anchor strike.

Environmentalists called the federal report “shocking,” saying it suggests no anchor regulations could prevent such a series of mishaps.

“This report shows there is no regulation or law short of eliminating the pipeline that Michigan can pass to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic Line 5 pipeline rupture,” David Holtz, a spokesman for citizens group Oil & Water Don’t Mix, said in a statement.

“Michigan must act on this new evidence. Only shutting Line 5 down can prevent an oil pipeline rupture and it is urgent that the governor and attorney general immediately use their authority to protect Michigan and the Great Lakes.”

Nessel echoed those concerns on Wednesday.

“Even though Gov. Whitmer has taken action to prevent anchor drops in the Straits, the 2018 incident was an accident that even the boat’s captain was unaware of,” she said.

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Wed, 06/05/2019 - 4:31pm

So we're supposed to believe that this pipeline is a flimsy decrepit piece of garbage, a time bomb just waiting to spill millions (billions?) of barrels of crude into the straits. Yet this delicate structure had a 6 ton anchor dragged across it by some incompetent corrupt shipping crew and yet was robust enough to withstand this (intentional?) trauma with no leak. Embridge, in spite of the proven robustness of their pipeline, volunteer to invest a half a billion dollars of their own money to bore a new line a 100 feet below the lake bed so incompetent shipping crews can't hit it. And who are the bad guys in all this? Not the shipping companies who have already irreparably contaminated the lakes with all sort of destructive invasive species we'll never ever get rid of. It's Embridge who must be penalized! Short of this obvious corruption the solution is obvious, ban Great Lakes shipping! But clearly to any logical person, the good cop bad cop team of Whitmer and Nessel are working with other motives. Why do they defend Great lakes shippers??? Clearly an investigation is necessary.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 3:15am

I agree with you on your point about the invasive species. However, that pipeline is a ticking time bomb. The pipeline was designed to lay directly on the bottom of the straits, however the bottom of the straits is constantly changing, and the pipeline is now suspended off the bottom in parts for hundreds of feet. As an engineer, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It is incredibly fortunate that the anchor strike happened in a section where the pipeline is still resting on the bottom, and not suspended. An oil pipeline on the bottom of the Great Lakes is just a really bad idea. I could get on board with the tunnel idea if Michigan needed the oil, but the vast majority of it goes to Canada. The pipeline does supply half of the propane to the UP, but an independent study showed that other sources could supply the UP propane needs at basically the same price. Line 5 offers Michigan no benefit yet we take all the risk. I say shut it down.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 11:18am

No Paul it sits on stanchions that were designed into the system because the lake bottom isn't level. There many of pipelines world wide and this is hardly the only or first one going underwater. The fact that this product ends up to Michigan, Canada or China is irrelevant and just an attempt to stir up angst among economically ignorant people. The demand is still there and will be filled by other ways more dangerous and higher carbon impacting ways and/or by higher prices. Simple fact is the reason the left is so against this pipeline is they (you?) are against any and all petroleum infrastructure as a means to force everyone into their Green New Deal fantasy land. If there was was a way to move this pipeline onto the land they'd still be screaming just as loud over other cooked up reasons as we have well seen in South Dakota and Nebraska. So it's no surprise you're against putting it out of harms way of incompetent crews and really dangerous ships that actually DO and HAVE damaged our Great Lakes!

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 4:32pm

Actually it does lie directly on the bottom in sections, as you can clearly see in the anchor strike video. Yes some sections are supported by stanchions, but due to the changing lake bed many sections are suspended, that were not designed to be. There are several sections spanning hundreds of feet, which is in violation of the agreement with the state of Michigan. Also how it is irrelevant where the oil ends up? If Canadian oil gets pumped through Michigan and ends up in Canadian markets, what benefit do we in Michigan get? What is irrelevant is my political views, but actually I’m conservative, and definitely no liberal. I’ve never understood why common sense environmental protection has to be a political issue.

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 8:47am

I mis stated as the pipeline as it sits on the bottom where the lake bed allows and on stanchions where required by uneven formations and has little to nothing to do with anything.
As a claimed conservative you must them respect the property rights given to parties such as Embridge. The idea that because someone "discovers" a n unquantifiable risk and there fore allows them or the state to confiscate someone's property should be anathema to any conservative, libertarian or believer in rule of law and is a terrifying precedent. This is so basic to conservatism that you may need to re- evaluate. The nationality of Enbridge or who uses their product changes nothing of this right to property nor the economics in the supply and demand of their product. This makes as much sense as my facetious suggestion that we ban GL shipping. Would it matter where and what the cargoes were and where being shipped? The $500 Million proposal from Embridge is a more than good faith proposal and solution to the still unquantified risk being claimed of a rupture. The refusal of the other side to take this win shows clearly the motivations are coming from elsewhere and not of an oil spill as claimed.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:05am

Can't agree more want to know why that barge and tug company hasn't been fined it was done on purpose to try to get it to leak, there more pollution coming off the bridge every time it rains than a pipe line leak would

James Shoup
Mon, 06/17/2019 - 1:35pm

This pipeline threatens 20 percent of the fresh water of the planet. Pipeline 5 has an engineered life of 50 years, it is 66 years old.
Enbridge corporation is a Canadian corporation that decimated the flora and fauna of the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, MI. Enbridge Corp has repeatedly put profits over planet and people and have proven they are poor stewards of the planet. The planet is not ours to destroy we are as stewards are supposed to protect it for future generations. Enbridge corporation and the irresponsible actions of the Republican legislature is poor stewardship. Continuing to allow this aged
Pipeline legislative malpractice. If Michigan needs a pipeline put a double hulled pipeline like we have with ships transporting oil/chemicals put it a tunnel with mandated camera’s/sensors and access for inspection. Contractually Schedule the next replacement of the line and make no provision for rubber stamping a continuance. Be a steward of the planet and not a corporate puppet. Think of your children and future generation. Money is not evil; the love of mammon/money is. When any organization rubber stamps a 16 year extension of the life it is not being a good steward of the environment and is definitely not being a public servant. Ask yourself am I a public servant or a corporate puppet. Am I serving my children and future generations or am I serving the economy/My re-election/do I love life or money/mammon or the planet.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 11:39pm

“All of the enforcement mechanisms in the world won’t prevent a tragedy from an unintended, accidental anchor strike. " what tragedy wasn't prevented? If the AG Nessel had paused for a moment before speaking and thought about what she was talking about she would have realized the two errors in her thinking.
First, there was no tragedy because of the planning and building of the pipeline over 60 years ago. The design and construction is what prevented the 'anchor drag' causing any catastrophic damaged to the pipeline, preventing any release of materials.
The second error in AG Nessel's thinking is that enforcement of regulations is always after the fact. Enforcement can only be done legally when there has been a violation of a rule or regulation, and as of yet AG Nessel hasn't identified such a violation related to the pipeline.
When it comes to the real world risks, protecting Michigan [as the pipeline shows] good engineers do more then even the AG of Michigan can do. For it is the engineers and technicians that assess the risks, identify the best means available to prevent or mitigate such risks, and implement their solutions, while all the lawyers such as the AG can do is take people to court after the fact and punish people. The #5 pipeline was built over 60 years ago and because of its design and construction there have been no tragedies the AG and so many others make the extreme remarks about.

The real tragedy is these whiners seem more concern with hearing themselves talk that asking or offering what are the risks that might lead to a tragedy and ask knowledgeable people how to prevent such risks.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:02am

No, a tragedy was prevented by luck. There are sections of the line where the anchor could have snagged and severed the line, rather than merely bludgeoning it. Point is, the risks of running the line under the Straits (whether in a tunnel or not) is an unnecessary risk for millions of humans and multiple ecosystems that primarily benefits a small handful of weathy investors

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 2:53pm

Yes Bones, exactly! The anchor struck in a spot where the pipeline is resting on the bottom so it just skipped right off of it. A suspended section of pipeline is nearby and that would have been a catastrophe.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 6:05pm


You have lost me, your are equating a the risk of the pipeline section on stands above the floor of the Straits being snagged with the risk of the pipeline running through a tunnel below the bottom of the Straits. I can envision an elevated pipe being snagged by a dragging anchor, but can envision that happening to a pipe in a hardened tunnel several feet below the bottom of the Straits.
Simply because a risk existing doesn't mean we should stop all activities associated with that risk, we each are at risks with potentially severe consequences everyday and yet we with a bit of care and planning we are able to avoid them. The need it is to recognize the risk, assess what can cause it to happen and deciding on ways to prevent or mitigate it.
We have risks with much greater consequences and yet with disciplined risk management society hasn't suffered the consequences of those risks and we have harnessed those risks in an effort to improve our world. Risk can be managed when emotions don't overwhelm reason and science.

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 1:15pm

What is the risk? Since you're an engineer and there fore good with math what are the probabilities we're looking at here?

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:18am

Duane just has to throw the Ad Hominem “Whiners” into his argument ☹️.
Where were the engineers and technicians when the neglected maintenance of the pipeline supports was discovered?
Enbridge is in a catch up position after years of neglect.
Shut it down now!

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 11:26am

Duane the goal is forcing us all into their Green New Deal, this unaccountable indeterminable "risk" is just an excuse. This is pure dishonesty because they can't achieve their goals at the ballot other than fanning ignorance in isolated cases. Stop trying to dignify their position.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 6:11pm

They run from the science to the lawyers, because they lack the self confidence to manage the science/technology, while the lawyers provide them a means to emotional control something they don't have to learn and can manipulate through volume and intimidation rather then knowledge and skills.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 9:56am

With the thought processes being used , we must immediately ban all ships and barges from the Great Lakes. Oh ya, and all power boats, jet skis and other types of powered vehicles. Oh ya, and people, because they are the worst polluters of all. While we’re on it, throw up a dome over all the Great Lakes so the birds can’t pollute the waters as well !

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:40am

What is the problem with a tunnel under the Straits? If there is a leak in the pipeline it will be contained in the tunnel. Now this "flimsy" 60 year old pipeline took a major hit and it did not leak. Why are we getting this fake news about this "flimsy" pipeline. Don't forget. Before this pipeline was built the plan was to have a massave fleet of tankers hauling the oil from Duluth to Sarnia.
Lets not get carried away. A pipeline is the safest way to move the product. A tunnel under the Straits would be great for both the pipeline and electrical cables. If you want to do away with pipelines stop driving your automobiles and useing petroleum products.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 2:44pm

I agree with the tunnel idea. It is safe and makes everybody happy.
No need for shutting anything down. Enbridge will pay for it and the Straits will be safe.
Green or No Green. Build a safe tunnel.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 4:54pm

The electrical company has already come out and stated that they are against the tunnel, and if it is built they don’t want their electrical lines housed in close proximity to oil pipelines. It seems logical to me to not house explosive oil products and high voltage electrical lines together. Enbridge already had a pipeline explode in Ohio this year. My main issue with the tunnel idea is that Michigan gets very little of the energy from the pipeline. And what we do get can be easily replaced from other sources. Let’s not forget that Enbridge is already responsible for the largest inland oil spill in American history that took place in southwest Michigan in 2010. Enbridge is a very dishonest company with a terrible environmental record.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 2:01pm

About 100,000 barrels a day of the oil transported in Line 5 is delivered 'stateside' and flows to Michigan's only refinery in Detroit (Marathon) and the two refineries just over the border in Toledo. The Toledo refineries make over 50% of the jet fuel that is consumed at DTW. That is just one of the small examples. Also most of southern Michigan gets their propane at a delivery site in ST. Clair. Where does that propane come from? It comes from back from Sarnia which is fed by Line 5. Also what about the small northern Michigan oil producers who put their product into Line 5 in Crawford county? Their product will now need to be put on trucks which will cost $3-4 more per barrel which will essentially put them out of business as their margins are thin already. Don't believe the environmentalists/sky is falling that Michigan only gets 5% of the product from this line and no other benefits...

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 9:34am

Yooper 4,
Say it isn't so, you are suggesting that the 'environmentalists' at best found it inconvenient to do their research and only repeated what supported their agenda. You are suggesting that the media didn't do its homework to understand the real impact of their reporting.
We are now hearing even from Governor Whitmer's office that the propane from the Line #5 is a significant supplier for the UP people.

I wonder if all the claims/reporting of no value to Michigan, should be considered 'fake news', 'fake science', faking to promote an political agenda.
The next question is should we believe anything the 'greenies' partisan say when it is a political topic? Or does anyone expect any of those that aggressively used the lack of economic impact to fess up about their errors in judgement and apologize or in anyway be repentant of their using the issue to intimidate others?

John Pilon
Thu, 06/06/2019 - 3:00pm

Good Lord. Was the boat driven by a drunken sailor?

Alex Sagady
Sun, 07/07/2019 - 11:31pm

On this.....

>>>>>The anchor dented Enbridge Energy’s dual Line 5 oil pipelines and sliced Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co.’s three underwater power cables, causing $100 million in damage to the cables and releasing 800 gallons of mineral oil into the Straits on April 1, 2018.

The statement about "causing $100 million in damage to the cables..." isn't accurate, since the cost of such cables and their installation would not be on the order of $100 million dollars. The far more likely basis of the $100 million figure would include the economic value of the electricity that could not be transmitted through 1 of the 2 three-phase electrical transmission circuits left after the anchor incident.

After the incident, the electrical transmission company had to reconfigure its lines to re-form a single 3-line, three-phase electrical transmission circuit from three of the remaining undamaged lines.