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Lansing — An electric transmission company whose power cables were ruptured by an anchor strike last year says moving its lines into a proposed tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac “is not an acceptable solution.”

Environmental groups are calling the development a “blow” to the potential project, and a tribal official says native leaders intend to raise concerns in a Friday meeting with staff from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder had pushed plans for a shared utility corridor that would house a replacement for Enbridge’s controversial Line 5 oil and gas pipeline, along with transmission infrastructure from other companies that currently rests on the lake bed.

Whitmer halted work on the project in March and is attempting to negotiate a faster plan to get the aging oil pipeline out of the Great Lakes. But as first reported by The Detroit News, she remains open to the idea of a tunnel and has resumed negotiations with Enbridge.

Fears over a catastrophic oil spill intensified in April 2018 when a tugboat anchor dented Line 5 and spliced separate power cables owned by American Transmission Company of Wisconsin that leaked nearly 600 gallons of mineral oil insulation fluid into the water.

Snyder first publicly backed the tunnel option after the anchor strike and negotiated a deal for Enbridge to pay for the construction. But ATC, whose transmission cables help power portions of the Upper Peninsula, never committed to a shared utility corridor and this week made clear it is not interested in participating.

“ATC does not believe that installing high voltage electric lines in close proximity to high pressure oil or gas lines is a good idea,” Vice President of External Affairs Tom Finco said in a Tuesday letter to the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, an inter-tribal management body.

Instead, Finco said ATC wants to remove its existing cables from the Straits and replace them with new “solid dielectric” submarine cables that would not contain any mineral insulating oil, “eliminating future risk of a release.”

That project could be completed by 2020, he said, but a “tunnel of uncertain timing, later in the decade, does not serve the public.”

Supporters have promoted the potential shared utility corridor as a safer alternative to both Line 5 and underwater transmission cables. It is an idea deemed feasible by Enbridge, outside consultants it hired for a state review and student researchers at Michigan Technological University.

Asked about the ATC letter, Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the Canadian energy company remains focused on the tunnel project, which he said would make a “safe pipeline safer.”

“We believe the project is the best way to protect both the Great Lakes and ensure Michigan receives the energy it needs,” he said.

ATC did not respond to a request for additional comment or details on its own transmission cable plans.

Bryan Newland, chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community, accused the former Snyder administration of “misleading” the public by “giving the impression that there was buy-in from all the stakeholders on this tunnel.”

ATC raised its objections to the tunnel project in a meeting last week with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, Newland said. He plans to raise the issue Friday when the group meets with Whitmer officials in Mackinac City.

Environmental groups have long called on the state to shut down Line 5, a call they reiterated in a Thursday press release that highlighted the ATC letter. Newland was also quoted in the release.

“We have hundreds of people in northern Michigan who are tribal members and engage in fishing for their livelihood or to put food on the table,” he told The Detroit News. “We have agreements with the state and federal governments to regulate that activity. Our interest is more than symbolic.”

Environmental groups have urged Whitmer to kill the tunnel plan if possible, but unions that also backed the East Lansing Democrat in the 2018 election support the potential construction project as a major job creation project in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.    

Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday she “will use every available resource” to shut down Line 5 if the governor’s push for a “swift and straightforward resolution” are unsuccessful.

Whitmer said Tuesday her office is “working diligently” to negotiate a final plan.

“We’re not finished," she said. "and so I’m not going to comment beyond that other than to say we share the goal of making sure that we protect the Great Lakes and get the oil out of the water.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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