Judge lets challenge to Enbridge Line 5 supports proceed

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A challenge to the state permits that allow Enbridge to install dozens of screw anchor supports along Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac will proceed after a judge kept some parts of the argument alive.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter dismissed most of the challenges to the placement of screw anchors along the dual oil pipelines, but found there was legal grounding to examine whether the state adequately assessed the risks those supports pose to the bottom lands. 

Enbridge installs one of 54 steel anchors along unsupported spans of the Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.

Pulter wrote in his Friday decision that, in considering the advisability of permits for screw anchors to support Line 5, he could not consider the overall safety of the continued operation of the pipeline or the change in design various anchor supports have wrought on Line 5. 

But Pulter said he would consider arguments regarding whether the state did its due diligence in assessing the risks of the placement of screw anchors in the bottom lands.

The challenge to the supports should not be limited to “the environmental effects of screwing two bolts per screw anchor into the lake bed, as initially asserted by EGLE at oral argument," the judge wrote. “Rather the petitioners may bring any claim related to ‘existing and potential…adverse effects to the environment, public trust and riparian rights of adjacent  owners’ that is causally related to the 73 screw anchors.”

Pulter scheduled a Feb. 28 pre-hearing conference in the case.

Environmental groups described the decision as a win for concerned citizens who felt the state should have required a “comprehensive environmental evaluation” of the anchor supports before giving Enbridge the permits.

"This decision means Enbridge and the state must now prove they have done that, and that the existing Line 5 does not pose more than a minimal potential for harm,” said Jim Olson, president for For the Love of Water. “We believe a thorough real evaluation of the overall risks of harm and alternatives to avoid that harm will lead to a conclusion that the risks are so far beyond minimal, the Line 5 must be shut down and decommissioned.”  

The state may ask Pulter to reconsider the decision to hold a hearing on the grounds that the risks posed by anchor installation had not been argued by the petitioners in the case, said Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, which is representing the state in the permit matter. 

Nessel is still working to remove Line 5, Covington said, but "so long as Line 5 remains in the Straits of Mackinac, it should be as secure as possible, which would justify the installation of additional anchor supports."

Enbridge expects the judge will dismiss the rest of the case once he hears evidence showing Enbridge's proposed installation method "minimizes any potential harm to the environment," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for the company.

"Nothing in the opinion affects Enbridge’s ongoing operation of Line 5, or the 53 anchors that were already installed in 2019," Duffy said. "The anchor installations make the dual pipelines safer. That is why EGLE approved the permits in the first place and has defended its decision to approve the permits." 

Enbridge is required under its 1953 easement and a consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to install anchor supports, or screw anchors, to secure the pipeline to the lake bed in any sections where more than 75 feet of pipeline has lifted from the lake bed due to erosion and currents.

But environmental groups have argued the state’s easement with Enbridge never envisioned the amount of pipeline that would eventually need support anchors. They estimate roughly three miles of pipeline have lifted off the lake bed and are now supported by screw anchors similar to an underwater "suspension bridge."

The screw anchors not only lift the pipeline off the lake bed — heightening its exposure to currents, anchor strikes or debris — but also pose a risk during installation, when securing mechanisms could damage the pipeline, the challenge alleges.

Based on the arguments, the Straits of Mackinac Alliance, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the city of Mackinac Island asked the state to revoke 73 screw anchor permits awarded to Enbridge since 2018, 53 of which have already been installed.