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The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority approved Wednesday a roughly four-mile, up to $500 million tunnel project corridor to house Enbridge’s Line 5 oil line a week after it was formed.

The unanimous decision by the three-member authority board came after a quick approval process that included lame-duck legislative approval for the authority, two resignations of initial board members and a five-day comment period on three separate agreements.

"I see this as an opportunity to put an agreement in place to actually protect the greatest natural resource we have in Michigan,” said authority Chairman Mike Nystrom. 

In addition to approving the tunnel agreement, the authority granted Enbridge an easement to the bedrock beneath the Straits of Mackinac. 

Gov. Rick Snyder also signed the third and final agreement with Enbridge, which cements the tunnel deal and holds Enbridge to inspection and maintenance requirements related to the existing pipeline. 

“Today’s actions will result in the removal of the oil pipeline from the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, maintain critical infrastructure connections between our peninsulas, provide energy security for residents of the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan and create good-paying jobs," Snyder said. 

Enbridge will pay for the tunnel's construction, transfer ownership to the state and then sign a 99-year lease to use and maintain the tunnel. 

The agreements "demonstrate our commitment to protecting the environment and the Great Lakes," said Brad Shamla, Enbridge vice president for U.S. operations. "We want to move forward on a number of steps immediately." 

The authority's inaugural meeting in St. Ignace included more than three hours of public comment, a large chunk of it from union members and Enbridge employees who support the project. Employees were provided the time and location of the meeting, but were free to chose whether to attend, said Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy.

"I believe that the proposed utility tunnel is the best path forward," said Brian Buck, an operations manager for Enbridge and a graduate of Michigan Technological University. 

Patty Peek of St. Ignace urged the board to delay its vote on the plan, arguing that they hadn't been given enough time to study and understand the proposed agreement. 

"Essentially, you are being asked to give a stay of execution to Line 5," Peek said. 

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel campaigned on promises to decommission Line 5 and have not supported the tunnel project. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has argued that he is not hastily rushing the tunnel proposal for approval, saying he is following through on years of scientific studies to find a solution that protect the environment and gets propane flowing to the Upper Peninsula.

Even before the three-hour meeting took place, Enbridge submitted applications to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin soil borings for its geotechnical analysis of the tunnel.

The group plans to do the sampling in 2019 along with preliminary engineering for the project. Enbridge hopes to finish the project by 2024, but the state has said the project could take up to 10 years because of permit delays, lawsuits or weather delays.

The plan approved by the committee allows Enbridge to move forward with a plan to pay for and build a tunnel to house a new pipeline that will replace the 1953 dual span beneath the Straits of Mackinac that has long been a source of concern because the potential for a catastrophic Great Lakes oil spill.

The agreement allows for multiple utilities to lease the tunnel; requires the recruitment, training and use Michigan workers on the project; ensures the final structure can contain an oil spill; limits liability to the state and authority; bans the use of eminent domain; and reimburses the Mackinac Bridge Authority for lost revenue from utilities that move from the bridge to the tunnel.

Enbridge also agreed to fund cameras for the Coast Guard to monitor ship activity in the Straits, shut down the existing line in bad weather and enhance safety in other areas where Line 5 crosses a water body.

Enbridge has said consistently said that the plan makes a “safe pipeline safer.”

“It is fit for service; it is safe,” Shamla said. “What we’re doing is really building for the future.”

Nystrom was elected chairman of the authority Wednesday, three days after he was appointed to the authority to fill the vacancy left by the governor's cabinet director Mike Zimmer, a Republican who resigned because of a potential legal conflict. 

Also appointed to the authority in recent days were Republican James (J.R.) Richardson, who replaced Democrat Geno Alessandrini, and Democrat Tony England, a professor at the University of Dearborn and a former member of the Pipeline Safety Advisory Board. 

In explaining his vote, England said his time on the pipeline board and background in science ensured he was "not coming from an uninformed position." But he said he understood the emotions surrounding the vote.

"It isn't as if you haven't been heard," England said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com      

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