Enbridge retrieves ½ of mechanical debris on Line 5 pipeline — but plans to leave the remainder in lakebed

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas
Updated, 2:19 p.m. 1/15/20 with EGLE’s statement

Last month, Canadian oil pipeline company Enbridge released a statement announcing its successful retrieval of a 45-foot steel borehole rod segment that had been lost to the Straits of Mackinac in September.

Left unsaid was the detail that the recovered segment was only about half of the original rod length, meaning that a steel rod segment measuring at least 40 feet long remains embedded in the lakebed, which Enbridge does not have plans to retrieve.

Enbridge photo

“It originally was one long piece of drill rod. We had to cut it at the mudline and we retrieved the 45-foot section that was above the lakebed and the section that was stuck below the lakebed cannot be retrieved,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in an email on Monday.

The drill rod became stuck on Sept. 12, when geological work for the company’s planned Line 5 tunnel project resulted in an equipment collapse. The incident was not reported to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) until mid-November.

This two-month delay was condemned by a number of state environmental groups, who held it up as an example of Enbridge’s transparency issues.

Enbridge had originally planned to wait until the spring to retrieve the steel rod from the Straits, citing safety concerns.

But “favorable weather conditions at the Straits in recent weeks prevented the water from icing over, providing Enbridge a window of opportunity to complete this work,” according to a Dec. 30 statement from the company. The statement announced that the rod had been successfully retrieved on the evening of Dec. 28. 

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The statement also noted that when Enbridge’s remote underwater vehicle retrieved the 45-foot segment, it was discovered that it “had moved from its original position near the pipeline and was found resting on the west leg of the [Line 5] pipeline.”

Nonetheless, Enbridge has continued to deny that the debris ever posed any safety or environmental risk to Line 5 and the Straits of Mackinac.

EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft said the department has known about the situation since Enbridge first reported the incident to the department in November.

“Enbridge told us about the portion of the grout rod that is stuck in the boring hole at the same time they let us know that the portion above the hole had broken off,” Assendelft said. “EGLE is concerned whenever material is left in the Great Lakes and we will monitor any impact on the water in the Straits from the rod’s presence in the bore hole.

“Since the grout rod is stuck in the hole, one thing we are evaluating is whether it’s best to leave the pipe in place rather than have Enbridge try to remove it, an operation that brings its own potential issues related to impacts on the environmental or sediment at the bottom of the Straits.”*

Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition, said the situation should be a wake up call for EGLE officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to immediately shut down Line 5 and proves that “Enbridge can’t be trusted.”

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“It is disturbing that nearly half of the giant drilling rod Enbridge left in the Straits still isn’t removed as winter weather conditions make an oil spill cleanup nearly impossible,” McBrearty said in an email.

“The really dangerous thing is that if the other half of the rod gets released, the current could move it into the pipeline at a right angle and puncture it. It’s really nothing but luck that the first half of the broken rod [hit] the pipeline horizontally.”

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, civil rights, health care/safety net and criminal justice. She is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two very special cats.