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ATC reports fluid has leaked into the Straits

April 3, 2018

ST. IGNACE — On April 3, American Transmission Co. shut down two submarine cables in the Straits of Mackinac that electrically connect the Upper Peninsula to lower Michigan as the result of yet-undetermined damage.


The cables tripped offline about 30 seconds apart Sunday evening, April 1. A patrol of the overhead elements of the system between Point Lebarbe in St. Ignace and the McGulpin Riser Station in Mackinac City showed no damage. The submarine cables, which contain a mineral-based fluid for insulation, were monitored overnight and subsequently determined to be leaking. At least 405 gallons of mineral dielectric compound was released into the Straits.


Per ATC, pressure on the system was reduced to minimize the fluid leak as maintenance, environmental and operations personnel worked to locate the compromised section of the cables on Monday, April 2. Investigations included aerial patrols over the Straits, cable testing and system reconfiguration options.


Extreme weather conditions, including icing in the channel and on shore, hindered the damage investigation and contributed to ATC’s decision to shut down the cables this morning, April 3.


ATC has notified the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the Michigan Public Service Commission of its decision to shut down the electrical cables.


Bay Mills Indian Community was also notified of the incident, with the EPA’s incident commander vowing to keep the tribe updated on the spill.


Clean-up crews with containment booms are currently at the site of the spill. The mineral oil mixture is lighter than water so it should come to the surface.  What is of concern is that benzene is part of the mixture, but the concentration at this point is unknown. Benzene is known to cause several ailments.


Because of this incident, the two cables that cannot be repaired and have been rendered permanently inoperable. ATC will be determining the condition of other cables in the Straits.


“It was an extraordinary set of circumstances, but ultimately, the decision to shut down the cables had to be made,” said Mark Davis, ATC chief operating officer. “We will continue to investigate the cause of the incident, determine any necessary remediation efforts and continue communicating with the appropriate regulatory agencies.”


ATC owns and operates most of the electric transmission grid in the Upper Peninsula. The system continues to operate normally at this time. ATC is coordinating with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator and Midwest Reliability Organization to determine short-term and long-term solutions.

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