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Late assistance from Enbridge slowed response to pipeline tampering, records show

Screengrab from a video taken at the scene of the Oct. 19 Line 5 protest in Tuscola County.
Up Hell’s Creek Camp via @ResistLine3
Screengrab from a video taken at the scene of the Oct. 19 Line 5 protest in Tuscola County.

When an activist got inside a valve station on Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline in Tuscola County Oct. 19, 16 police, fire and ambulance units from seven different agencies were called into action -- but it took almost an hour for them to arrive at the scene.

Interviews with emergency response officials and a review of emergency dispatch records indicate the delayed reaction was a result of Enbridge taking the better part of an hour to tell dispatchers where the pipeline incursion was.

Now, law enforcement officials and activists say Enbridge’s slow communication has them concerned about the company’s ability to handle security threats and environmental damage along the controversial pipeline, which Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered Enbridge to shut down.

“There was a lack of knowledge ... as to the locations of these shutoffs and that they were, in fact, vulnerable to this kind of protest,” said Ben Guile, the police chief of Vassar, which is the closest city to the compromised Line 5 valve site.

“That had never been communicated to us by Enbridge,” he said.

The incident began with a 911 call just after noon last Tuesday, Oct. 19. Video posted to Facebook by a group called Up Hell’s Creek Camp shows the person who took a wrench to the valve on the exposed section of Line 5 calling the emergency number to report that a group would be shutting down the pipeline, and then hanging up. The caller did not say where the group was or answer questions from the 911 operator.

One minute later, the video shows, the person phoned Enbridge to make a similar report. On the line with Enbridge, the caller asked the company to preemptively shut down its pipeline.

Records and interviews show the emergency response to those calls was confused and spasmodic, full of unanswered questions and false starts.

‘Okay, what is the problem, and where is it?’

Emergency calls in Tuscola County are routed to the county’s central dispatch. Logs released to WCMU News under a public records request show central dispatch did not receive a call from Enbridge until 12:55 p.m. — at least 40 minutes after the company knew protesters were tampering with its valve. Interviews with emergency responders corroborate that timeline.

In the meantime, while emergency workers were trying to figure out where the call came from and exactly what it was about, a protester was shimmying under Enbridge’s fence, cutting a lock, and cranking on the company’s equipment with a pipe wrench.

Enbridge declined requests for an interview for this story. In an email, a spokesperson said the company stopped the flow of oil through the pipeline immediately when it got the phone call saying activists would be manually operating the shutdown valve, so no one was at risk. But the company didn’t tell dispatchers that detail either, until nearly an hour after it happened.

In fact, for half an hour, emergency responders didn’t even fully realize it was an oil pipeline that was in danger.

Without communication from Enbridge, 911 operators were left to interpret the initial phone call from the valve site as best they could. Unable to determine the caller’s location or intent, dispatch recorded the message as a 911 hangup that could only be “logged for info,” records show.

The next call about the pipeline in the 911 log came from a Detroit police sergeant. Detroit police had already called Vassar Police Chief Ben Guile, who directed the officer to state police, who redirected the officer again to Tuscola County Central Dispatch, which received the call a few minutes before 12:30 p.m.

The Detroit police sergeant told Tuscola County responders that someone might be tampering with a water supply, not an oil line, in the area.

Kim Vetter, a spokesperson for Michigan State Police, said it was a confusing period for emergency crews.

“Agencies were getting information; it just wasn’t complete or, really, accurate,” Vetter said. “They were beginning to learn that there was a problem, but it took a minute to figure out, ‘OK, what is the problem, and where is it?’”

Communication from Enbridge “would have been extremely helpful,” Vetter said.

Emergency response based on a guess

Though the call from Detroit confused matters for a short time, it did provide a detail that proved to be the key to figuring out what was happening, and where: The caller said there was a Facebook Live stream of the group at the pipeline.

Tuscola County Emergency Management Director Steve Anderson pulled up the feed. He got on the phone with the commander of the local state police post. They thought they recognized what they were seeing.

“We came up with the Line 5 location near Vassar,” Anderson said in an email. “That was more or less a guess watching the video and seeing the surrounding area as the camera moved around the site.”

It was a lucky guess, too, because their other hunch was that the video was showing a site miles away in Saginaw County, which has its own central dispatch separate from Tuscola County’s.

Anderson said he got in his truck and headed for the site near Vassar. On the way, he called Enbridge, which he said confirmed the location.

It was 12:47 p.m., 40 minutes after the 911 call reporting that demonstrators had gained access to the pipeline, and only now did the county’s emergency manager know where the emergency was happening.

Nine minutes later, still en route to the pipeline, Anderson said he talked to Enbridge again, this time to check that the line’s oil flow had been shut off. It had, nearly an hour ago, Enbridge said.

By the time emergency crews arrived at the scene, all the demonstrators had left.

Consequences of delay

Peatmoss Ellis, one of the activists who was at the pipeline that day, said the slow response showed Enbridge is unprepared for a more dangerous situation, like an oil spill.

“Between calling the emergency number and anyone showing up, we were able to spend a half-hour of turning the safety valve in order to close the dangerous flow of oil, have a punk show, hang out, and then leisurely get into our cars and leave the location,” Ellis said.

“There have already been oil spills on this line, and we fear greatly the next one,” said Ellis.

A 2017 analysis of records by the National Wildlife Foundation found almost 30 oil spills in the history of Line 5, which together have released at least 1.1 million gallons of oil.

Bill Caram, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said tampering with a pipeline valve is dangerous — but so is a delayed response to a pipeline emergency.

Caram said his organization was formed after a tragedy in 1999, when an unexpected valve closure on a pipeline in Washington State caused the line to overpressurize and explode, killing three people.

“I understand and sympathize with the activists’ frustrations. However, illegally closing valves is a poor outlet for those frustrations,” he said.

On the one hand, said Caram, Enbridge’s claimed speed in shutting the line down in the few minutes between getting word that protesters were at the valve site, and an activist starting to handle its equipment, is impressive. On the other hand, he said, it’s not typical.

“Unfortunately, in times of crisis, [pipeline] operators have consistently shown that it takes much, much longer to shut down a pipeline than what they put in their spill response plans or what they promise the public,” Caram said.

Enbridge has called for last Tuesday’s demonstrators to be prosecuted.

Law enforcement officials said they’re working on it, but prosecution would be much easier if Enbridge had helped police get to the scene sooner.

“You’re always in a better posture when you have a chance to speak to someone right at the time of an event,” said Tuscola County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Reene. “They don’t have an opportunity to speak to other individuals. They don’t have an opportunity to perhaps make an attempt to get rid of certain items of evidence.”

Reene said his office, state police and the FBI are all working on the case.

Enbridge and emergency responders said they will learn from the pipeline incursion and the muddled response.

“Obviously there’s some security issues there,” said Kim Vetter, the state police spokesperson. “We’ve identified an area of improvement. Let’s figure out what to do next.”

Enbridge’s full statement on the incident and response is below.

"Enbridge’s response to the recent criminal attack on a Line 5 valve site was immediate and appropriate with operators safely securing the pipeline before trespassers could do damage or put at risk those involved in the attack, the community or the environment.

While Enbridge responded swiftly and as trained, any situation provides opportunity to learn. We will continue to evaluate security and safety across our system.  

Going forward we will redouble our work with local first response and law enforcement agencies to prevent dangerous destruction of our infrastructure."

Ed. note: Enbridge is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Brett joined Michigan Public in December 2021 as an editor.
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