Environmental agency grants state permits for Line 5 tunnel construction

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan environmental officials on Friday granted Enbridge Energy some of the final state-level approvals the company needs to construct a nearly four-mile tunnel beneath the lake bed of the Straits of Mackinac, awarding the Canadian pipeline giant state environmental permits critical to construction.

Enbridge still is seeking federal approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the project. 

The roughly $500 million tunnel will eventually house a new segment of the 68-year-old Line 5, which has been an environmental concern over the years because of its age and potential impact on the Great Lakes should it leak. 

Enbridge animation of potential tunnel under Straits of Mackinac

The new segment of pipeline that will be housed in the tunnel still is waiting on authorization from the Michigan Public Service Commission. In a Friday statement, the state reiterated its commitment to shutting down the aging pipeline by May by revoking the pipeline's permit. 

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said its review of the current pipeline and tunnel proposal led the agency to conclude the current pipeline was an unacceptable risk, a conclusion that led the Department of Natural Resources in November to revoke the pipeline's easement and order its closure.

The state permit approvals come after nine months of public information sessions, hearings, tribal consultation, thousands of public comments and input from the State Historic Preservation Office, the state said. 

“Our review showed construction of the proposed tunnel could comply with state environmental laws," said Liesl Clark, director for the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. "We have issued permits designed to ensure that if a tunnel is constructed, it will be in strict compliance with relevant statutes and adhere to stringent protections against impacts to the Great Lakes.”

Enbridge said the approvals for the pipeline mean the company can move forward to make "a safe pipeline even safer."

"The EGLE permits are an important milestone for the tunnel project and are part of the process to authorize its construction," the company said. "Permits from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are still required." 

Environmental groups on Friday criticized the granted permits, saying the state "largely rubber stamped" applications missing some required elements. 

“Enbridge is not acting in the best interest of Michiganders and our precious Great Lakes as they actively fight critical review and transparency on construction and environmental risks for this tunnel proposal,” said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes campaigns manager for the National Wildlife Federation. 

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters said it was "deeply disappointed" with the state's decision, arguing a tunnel that would keep oil pipelines in the Great Lakes "jeopardizes our future."

"The true alternative to Line 5 is building a clean energy economy that ensures our air, water and people are protected,” added Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the league. 

The permits issued Friday include bottom lands and wetlands permits as well as the company's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Wastewater Permit.

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

Tunnel construction will impact about 0.13 acres of wetlands, which Enbridge will need to compensate for by protecting 1.3 acres of existing Great Lakes wetlands and buy wetlands credit, the department said in a statement. 

The wastewater permit requires Enbridge to ensure that wastewater produced during construction be treated to meet water quality standards. It also requires the company to notify the state if the plant reaches 66% capacity and stop operations if it reaches 100% capacity. 

Enbridge agreed to pay for and build the $500 million tunnel through an agreement with Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018, shortly before Snyder left office. 

The deal allowed the pipeline to continue operating during the seven- to 10-year construction period for the project.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, Democrats who had run on promises to close the pipeline down, challenged the agreement between the state and Enbridge. Whitmer urged the company to speed up its construction timeline. 

Enbridge has said it could not complete construction before 2024. 

Nessel filed suit in 2019 in state court seeking a court-ordered closure of the pipeline based on its environmental risk, while Enbridge sought state court support of the 2018 agreement between the company and state. 

The state court upheld the 2018 agreement, and Nessel's suit asking for the court-ordered closure still is pending. 

In November, Whitmer's Department of Natural Resources revoked Enbridge's 1953 easement through the Straits of Mackinac, arguing that a review of decades of reports showed Enbridge had violated the easement. The company has denied any current non-compliance. 

The DNR filed in state court seeking support of its easement revocation. Enbridge filed in federal court arguing, the line was under federal regulation, not state. The company also moved the state's lawsuit from state court to federal court.