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Enbridge Energy will continue rock and soil sampling in the Straits of Mackinac this week, moving its previously land-based boring operation onto the actual waterway where the company will drill for the samples from a barge.

The start of drilling from the waterway, Enbridge said, “preserves the schedule to complete the tunnel at the earliest possible date,” which is expected to be five years from now in 2024.

The geotechnical work is part of the $40 million the Canadian company plans to spend this year in the beginning phases of its construction of a $500 million utility corridor project, an investment made even as the state challenges the agreement to build the tunnel.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel in March opined that Enbridge’s agreement with the state to build the tunnel, established under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, was unconstitutional. That same month, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer halted state work on the project and began discussions about a new plan with a shorter timeline for completion.

In early June, Enbridge filed legal action in the Michigan Court of Claims asking the court to rule its agreement is valid and enforceable. The company, which has said it could complete its project in five years, said it could not meet the two-year Line 5 decommissioning deadline Whitmer wanted.

The governor criticized the decision to choose litigation rather than “negotiate in good faith” and claimed the company was “only interested in protecting its bottom line.” Nessel has said she will take her own legal action to shut down the line if the governor and Enbridge don't reach a new deal by the end of this month.

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said the geotechnical work is part of the scope of work allowed through a permit issued in January, before Whitmer issued her directive in March halting state involvement. The company also obtained a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the rock and soil sampling.

"The EGLE permit remains in effect and authorizes the geotechnical sampling," said Zach Pohl, Whitmer's communications director. "Based upon the attorney general's opinion, however, the previous agreements authorizing a tunnel are void. The state has not authorized Enbridge to move forward with constructing a tunnel and any work to achieve that objective is done at the company’s own risk.”

On Monday, Enbridge said it received written affirmation from the state last week that allowed it to continue collecting geotechnical samples.

“We’re not implying support for the tunnel as a result of this confirmation,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said. The company remains “open to having additional discussions” with the governor, Duffy said, but Enbridge has not met with Whitmer’s office since filing in the Court of Claims on June 6.

Workers on a small barge this week will begin drilling and sampling just west of the Mackinac Bridge, Duffy said, and a larger, specialized barge will drill in the deepest sections of the passage later in July.

The geotechnical work “will gather information to inform the detailed engineering and permit application efforts that are part of advancing our commitment to the tunnel that will house a replacement pipeline for Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac,” the company said in a statement.

“We remain committed,” Duffy said. “We’re going to continue to stay on schedule for what we can do for the pre-construction work and the rock and soil sampling.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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