Anatomy of A Spill in the Great Lakes

Five years ago this spring, when I first learned about Line 5, I could only imagine what a catastrophic oil spill would look like here in the heart of the Great Lakes.  Two weeks ago, we dodged a bullet as we watched a hazardous liquid spill from two neighboring transmission cables unfold. What we witnessed was an anatomy of a spill — and how truly devastating an oil spill would be.    

Here’s what we know from the April 1st spill in the Straits.  

A release of at least 600 gallons of toxic coolant and insulating fluid from electric cables owned by American Transmission Company (ATC) occurred sometime Sunday afternoon in the Straits of Mackinac.  The dielectric fluid is a mineral oil that contains a benzene compound. ATC, however, did not report the release to the Coast Guard for 24 hours.  By Monday, ATC officials were blaming “extraordinary circumstances” like ice in the water and near the shore that hindered the emergency response.  

No cause was initially identified until days later.  The cause? Vessel anchor strike. News media coverage revealed the chaotic nature of responding to this hazardous liquid spill with Coast Guard helicopters looking for oil sheens and a multi-agency unified command assembling from federal, state, tribal, and local agencies and units.  Reports attempted to allay public fears, indicating that the product was so diluted that it would not pose a threat to drinking water supply intakes. The greatest threat posed was to wildlife and shore birds swimming in possible oil floating on the water’s surface.

On April 3, Enbridge – owner and operator of Line 5 – temporarily shut down the flow of oil in the pipelines to evaluate the leak detection systems.  Ten days after the ATC accident, on April 10, Enbridge notified state and federal officials that their pipelines had suffered three dents, likely due to the same vessel activity that may have caused the damage to the ATC lines.

Hold on.  Vessel anchor strike hitting Line 5?  This was the number one threat that Dynamic Risk identified in their November 2017 alternative report to the Governor-created Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.  Ironically, the original Bechtel engineers believed that a vessel anchor strike was only “one chance in a million.”

Well, two weeks ago that one chance in a million struck.  

And finally, a growing chorus of federal and state leaders from both sides of the aisle are demanding that Line 5 be shut down until a full visual inspection has taken place.  Tribal leaders like Aaron Payment from the Sault Tribe call for more comprehensive investigation and analysis: “These old pipes need to be shut off, at least until proper investigations and the full analyses are finished.” . . .  “Governor Snyder should not be using this accident as an excuse to fast-track a tunnel.”

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

So what can we learn from this?  First, we don’t need to imagine anymore.  We know that it might take up to 24 hours before the spill is even reported.   We know exactly how difficult it would be to deploy emergency responders to contain oil in the open waters.  We know how extreme the conditions are in the Straits, even in spring. We know about the challenges of ice. We know that we can never be 100% prepared in such a dynamic, chaotic, and extreme environment as the open waters of the Great Lakes.  Second, and most important, we can’t take a second chance because of the magnitude of harm and risk that Enbridge is asking citizens of Michigan to shoulder.

Let’s do the right thing. Michigan leaders – it’s time to be proactive and shut down this 65-year-old oil pipeline before it’s really too late.    

3 comments on “Anatomy of A Spill in the Great Lakes

  1. John Russell on

    Anchor strike? During a snow event in April? Any vessel operating that early in the season would have records of anchoring. As should the USCG or even Boat Nerd. This should be investigated….

  2. Berta Meserve on

    This is such a no brainer! Shut this Line down, and for good, not just temporarily. Over 1000 vessels went through the Straits in 2017. How many more chances are our representative’s willing to take for us, we the people, before they realize a greater devistation to over 40 million who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, not to mention, all the other economic and wildlife reasons etc, etc. No tunnel, no! This is crazy. Then if a leak occurs how the heck will we fix it? No, no, no, shut down Line 5 now.

  3. Lynn Fraze on

    It took me over an hour (being transferred from one phone number to another) to report sighting of a floating block of ice with a yellow sheen to the USCG which I photographed on April 11, 2018 near McGulpin Pt. Turns out what newspapers have been referring to as a “mineral oil” spill was actually dielectric fluid containing benzene and DF-45 a very toxic chemical according to ATC’s own website. So grateful that Liz Kirkwood and the folks at FLOW are on top of the issues and speaking common sense and truth to power when others lack the courage to safeguard our Great Lake


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