Feds launch public comment on Enbridge's Straits tunnel permit application

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deemed Enbridge’s permit application for the construction of a utility tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac complete, a little more than a week after state environmental experts said it was not.

The Army Corps set a public comment period that will last through June 4 on the application seeking permission to build a roughly 4-mile tunnel to house a new segment of the Line 5 oil pipeline. 

“This first determination, coming approximately one month after submittal, is significant and moves the process one step further to the tunnel becoming a reality,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said Tuesday.

Enbridge resumed partial operation Saturday to its Line 5 pipeline under the Straights of Mackinac.

The Army Corps considered the application "administratively complete" after Enbridge responded to two separate requests May 4 and May 7 for additional information, said Katie Otanez, a regulatory project manager for the corps' Detroit District.

"We have not scheduled a public hearing, but commenters to the public notice may request a public hearing," Otanez said. "The corps will determine whether a public hearing is needed based on whether a hearing is likely to result in information that could not otherwise be gained."

If approved for state and federal permits, the Canadian company plans to begin construction of the tunnel in 2021 and begin operating the new Line 5 within the tunnel 2024. The Whitmer administration opposes the tunnel's construction.

The go ahead from the Army Corps comes roughly a week after the state said the Canadian oil company’s application was incomplete and requested further information and edits that provide more specificity on the plan. 

Duffy said the company is working to provide answers to the state's request for additional information, which he called a “routine request.” 

“Enbridge appreciates the timeliness and important feedback we are receiving from the permitting agencies,” Duffy said. 

Enbridge has until June 3 to respond to the May 4 request for more information, said Scott Dean a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. 

When the department decides the company's application is "administratively complete," the application will be placed on public notice for 20 days, Dean said. 

State and federal environmental reviews of permit applications vary because they fall under separate state and federal laws, he said. 

The state's authority derives from Michigan's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Action while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it comes to the Straits of Mackinac operates under the Clean Water Act. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have opposed the continued operation of the 66-year-old Line 5, which carries natural gas and crude oil through the Straits of Mackinac. Whitmer and Enbridge sparred in 2019 over a shorter timeline for construction and, when negotiations failed, Enbridge sued the state and Nessel sued Enbridge.

The company’s suit sought a court order upholding Enbridge’s tunnel construction agreement under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, a request a judge granted. Nessel’s suit sought the immediate shutdown of Line 5 and is still pending in court.