Enbridge submits key Line 5 tunnel construction permits to state, feds

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Enbridge submitted an application to state and federal regulators Wednesday seeking a permit to begin construction on a roughly 4-mile utility tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

If granted, the permit would allow the Canadian oil pipeline giant to begin construction on the Great Lakes Tunnel Project next year with a target operational date in 2024.

The tunnel would house Enbridge’s new Line 5 oil pipeline and replace a 67-year-old dual span that transports up to 540,000 barrels a day of natural gas liquids and crude oil along the lake bed between the Upper and Lower peninsulas.

The east pipeline of Line 5 suffered damage from an anchor strike in April 2018.  Environmental groups want the 66-year-old pipelines closed to avoid a potential oil spill and environmental disaster.  

The project’s permit phase is moving forward under court order as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel battle the continued operation of the existing pipeline in court.

Both Whitmer and Nessel spoke out against the pipeline on the campaign trail and challenged Enbridge’s agreement with Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder shortly after taking office in 2019.

The pipeline has been a source of concern for environmental groups worried about the catastrophic effects of a potential spill from the line, especially in light of the 2010 Enbridge spill along the Kalamazoo River in Marshall.

“The existing Line 5 was designed to last and has served this region well for more than 60 years,” said Amber Pastoor, project manager for the tunnel. “With today’s technology, the Great Lakes Tunnel Project will help deliver an enhanced level of safe, reliable energy, along with measures to protect our waterways for generations.”

A coalition of 16 environmental groups, Native American tribes and civic leaders asked Whitmer in a Wednesday letter to delay consideration of the permit applications because the statewide shutdown makes it more difficult for tribal and local governments to weigh in on the applications.

“Our goal is to ensure that all Michigan citizens in every Michigan community that are interested in participating in the public comment process have ample opportunity to offer their views on the permit applications, including at public hearings and at public information meetings," the group said in its letter.

The state confirmed it received the application from Enbridge Wednesday morning and said the state environmental agency "continues to operate and serve the public."

"We are adapting our processes to handle these and other permit requests in a way that protects public health, complies with the law, and allows meaningful public participation and input," said Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The design of the tunnel hasn’t been finalized, but the permit application outlines an 18-foot to 21-foot diameter tunnel running 60 to 200 feet below the lake bed. Work will begin on about 25 acres in the Lower Peninsula and move north to an about 16-acre Enbridge-owned parcel in the Upper Peninsula.

Livonia-based Jay Dee Contractors Inc. and Obayashi Corp. will construct the tunnel, while Arup will handle engineering and design.

The joint application to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic “comes at a challenging time for everyone,”  Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said.

The company is working within a timeline outlined in a 2018 agreement with the state and is in communication with state and federal agencies on the permit’s timing, Duffy said.

“Their consultation in recent weeks has been helpful in making certain the application and the process met their requirements, expectations and capabilities,” he said.

Much of the work on the project in recent weeks has been design work, making it possible to move forward with design even under the governor’s stay-home order, Duffy said.

"Enbridge employees are all staying home right now, but we’ve still been working and we don’t have anybody in the field up there in the Straits," he said.

Nessel challenged the legitimacy of the agreement with Snyder, while Whitmer negotiated with the company to seek a shorter timeframe for the tunnel’s completion.

When the company was unable to agree to a two-year timeline for completion, negotiations came to a standstill and Enbridge asked the Court of Claims to uphold its agreement with the state as valid and enforceable.

Nessel fired back with a separate lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking the existing pipeline’s closure because she argued it was a public nuisance and environmental risk.

The Court of Claims ruled in favor of Enbridge last year, allowing the company to move forward with design and permitting.