The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a new investigative report into a near-disastrous 2018 anchor strike. In its wake, citizens groups have called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel to take immediate steps to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.
The May 31 NTSB report, carried Tuesday in the trade publication Maritime Executive, blames a series of crew errors and defective equipment aboard the Erie Trader for causing the damaging anchor strikes as the tug and barge navigated up to 8-foot seas and 30-knot winds through the icy Straits. It wasn’t until more than a day after the April 1 anchor strike—when the Erie Trader approached its Indiana destination after sailing from the Straits through Lake Michigan that the ship’s captain noticed they had been dragging anchor.
“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,” said David Holtz, Oil & Water Don’t Mix spokesperson. “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.”
Under an agreement with the State of Michigan, Enbridge is required to shut down Line 5 oil transport during certain dangerous conditions, but didn’t do so until several days after the anchor strike was first discovered. In the aftermath of the anchor strike, Michigan also banned anchor deployment in the Straits, but as the NTSB report indicated there were already anchor restrictions in place when the Erie Trader sailed through the turbulent Straits, unknowingly dragging 540 feet of heavy chain and one of its two anchors behind it.
“Passing anchor bans and signing swiss cheese agreements with Enbridge are simply rearranging deck chairs on this Titanic disaster in the waiting,” said Holtz. “You cannot read the NTSB report and conclude anything other than an immediate and permanent shut down of Line 5 is the appropriate and necessary action to take. Every day that pipeline sits in the Straits is a day closer to disaster.”
The day of the anchor incident, most of the ship’s crew was off in observance of Easter Sunday while the captain was unaware that his ship was dragging a six-ton anchor across the lakebed, rupturing electrical pipelines and damaging Enbridge’s 66-year-old oil pipelines, according to NTSB investigators.
Other findings in the report, include:
The Erie Trader had two anchors, port and starboard, but the crew only checked that the port anchor was secure after mooring overnight near the Soo Locks and departing the next day on Easter Sunday for the Mackinac Straits. A crew member, according to the report, indicated that the anchors were secure but actually failed to check the starboard anchor, which was recently repaired but had been previously out of service since 2017.
Meanwhile, it appears the starboard anchor remained deployed as the Erie Trader headed to the open water behind a Coast Guard ice breaker amid heavy winds and seas. Those strong winds, high waves and noise from breaking ice may have masked the sound of the anchor chain and ship’s anchor dragging, according to the report. The report concludes that the weight of the nearly 18,000-pound anchor chain and six-ton anchor dragging through turbulent waters likely overwhelmed anchor braking and safety devices. The NTSB report also found that the starboard anchor brakes, which had been recently repaired, were not properly adjusted.
The American Transmission Corporation, owner of the electrical lines in the Straits, first discovered a problem with the lines at 5:31pm on April 1 but it took two more days to notify the Coast Guard. It took Enbridge two weeks to visually inspect the pipeline and initially they claimed Line 5 hadn't been struck by the anchor.
Gov. Whitmer is currently negotiating a potential oil tunnel in the Straits but is concerned that construction will take many years leaving the oil pipelines there a continuing risk. The State of Michigan has approved permits for installation on 201 anchor screw supports on the twin pipelines in the Straits which are screwed into the lakebed and hold the pipeline 2 to 4 feet off the bottom, raising concerns that an anchor fluke could easily snag the now elevated pipeline.