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Line 5 tunnel plan teed up in Michigan Senate

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
FILE -- Oil pipeline operator Enbridge moves under the Mackinac Bridge on their way to inspect their controversial Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac Wednesday, June 8, 2016. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle and a roving underwater vehicle over several days, the entire five-mile-long pipeline, which rests on supports along the bottom of Lake Michigan,will have been covered by both sonar and visual means.

Lansing — Michigan's Republican-led Senate is moving fast on plans to create a new "utility corridor authority" to oversee a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac that would house a replacement for Enbridge's controversial Line 5 oil pipeline. 

The full chamber is expected to vote this week on the enabling legislation after Monday night negotiations with Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, which is attempting to finalize tunnel plans before he leaves office at the end of the year. 

Snyder had proposed using the Mackinac Bridge Authority to oversee the tunnel, but lawmakers balked at the plan amid opposition from former members of the bridge authority wary of expanding the panel's scope. 

The revised legislation would instead create a new three-member authority to oversee the utility corridor, which would be drilled 100 feet into bedrock below the lake bed. Members would be appointed by the governor, with no more than two members from either major political party. They would serve six-year terms.

"Legislators appear to favor an alternative of using a new authority and Gov. Snyder supports that decision," Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Monday. 

Environmental groups, who have long warned about the risk of a major oil spill in the Great Lakes, continue to oppose the tunnel plan. But the revised proposal to create a new authority could win over reluctant Republican lawmakers and quickly advance through the state Legislature. 

Sponsoring Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, reiterated their support for a new authority. 

“The Mackinac Bridge Authority has done an outstanding job maintaining the Mackinac Bridge, but board members were concerned about dividing their attention by managing this new responsibility – and I completely understand," Casperson said in a statement.

If approved by the Senate, the tunnel plan would advance to the House for consideration next week.

Chatfield, poised to become House Speaker next year, echoed Casperson's comments and said the Legislature is "doing all we can to place a solution on Gov. Snyder’s desk that enables the construction of an underground infrastructure corridor with the proper oversight to hold all parties accountable."

Republicans hope to wrap up tunnel plans by the end of the year to avoid looming road blocks next session. Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel have both vowed to decommission Line 5 by attempting to revoke the easement that allows it to run through the Straits.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced Tuesday it has issued to Enbridge a permit to install an additional 48 anchor support structures into the lake bed to further secure the Line 5 dual pipelines, built in 1953.