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Enbridge secures contractors for design, construction of Line 5 tunnel

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Enbridge has secured key contracts to design and construct a $500 million tunnel to keep the Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac,  developments that advance the project despite litigation to close the dual pipelines.

The state authority overseeing the project will meet Friday for the first time in 15 months to discuss the developments following court orders affirming the legality of the panel. 

Enbridge plans to begin construction on the roughly four-mile tunnel in 2021 and place a new Line 5 segment into service within the tunnel in 2024, a timeline that brought them into conflict last year with state leaders.

Enbridge Energy extracted samples from 27 holes drilled on shore, in shallow, and at the deepest segments of the Straits of Mackinac, capping Enbridge’s $40 million investment in 2019 in preliminary work for a tunnel to house the Line 5 oil pipeline.

The project is essential to the state's energy future and "economic vitality," said Brad Shamla, Vice President of U.S. Operations at Enbridge.

“It will enable residents, schools and businesses to continue to receive critical fuel and the thousands of products Line 5 helps make possible while increasing environmental safeguards and protection of the Great Lakes," Shamla said.

Livonia-based firm Jay Dee Contractors Inc. and a U.S. affiliate of the Obayashi Corp. will partner to construct the tunnel, Enbridge announced Thursday.

The contract is an 18-month pre-construction services agreement between Enbridge and Jay Dee and the Japanese tunnel construction firm, which have partnered under the name Great Lakes Tunnel Constructors. Engineering firm Arup will develop construction design.

Enbridge signed an agreement with the state in 2018 to build a $500 million tunnel to house Line 5 after months and years of concern from environmental groups, who worried about the impact a spill in the Straits would have on the Great Lakes. 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who promised to shut down Line 5, opposed the timeline for the tunnel's construction. When Enbridge said it could not meet an abbreviated timeline, both sides filed suit. 

But a state Court of Claims decision last year affirmed Enbridge's agreement with the state and allowed the company to move forward with construction. 

Enbridge finished its geotechnical analysis last year and will focus on design and permitting this year. 

Contract for construction

The companies under contract collectively have constructed more than 400 pressurized-face tunnels, including several with conditions similar to what they’ll encounter in the Straits of Mackinac, according to Enbridge.

Jay Dee is partnering with Obayashi on a separate project in Cleveland and was awarded the Enbridge contract the first of the year, said Timothy Backers, project manager for Great Lakes Tunnel Constructors. 

"We’ve been in business for 55 years and this is a project that I’d consider one of the top three in the company’s history," Backers told The News. 

Jay Dee has about 250 full-time employees and expects to employ 300 to 350 during peak construction periods on the tunnel, Backers said. 

"This will be of great economic benefit to the region up there," he said. "We intend to employ and utilize as many of the local people as possible, and we are looking to implement job training programs in order to facilitate that.”

Enbridge began the process of retaining contracts for the tunnel design and construction last year, busing interested parties to the Straits so they could understand the breadth of the project, said Amber Pastoor, project manager for the Great Lakes Tunnel Project.

"We wanted them to see the place," she said. "We wanted them to see the bridge. We wanted them to see the land. We wanted them to get a sense of the people living in the area.”

Pastoor would not give a breakdown of the cost of either contract, but said Enbridge still estimates the overall cost will come in between $350 million and $500 million. 

Authority meets again

The state authority tasked with managing Enbridge's tunnel project will hold its first meeting in 15 months on Friday in St. Ignace.

The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, which was created by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2018 to oversee the tunnel's construction, had been caught up in a legal fight over the law until the Michigan's Court of Claims ruled last year that the statute was valid.

Mike Nystrom, the authority's chairman, called the meeting a "huge step forward."

"By moving forward now, we're moving the finish line closer," Nystrom said of the tunnel project, which he said would put the pipeline in a tunnel in bedrock.

"The real concern here is that the pipeline is still on the bottom of the Straits," he said of the current situation.

The authority will use its Friday meeting to get an update about what Enbridge has been doing, said Nystrom, who is also executive vice president at the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. The authority is also in charge of making sure that Enbridge hits certain thresholds for its project, he said.

The three authority members were appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who supported the tunnel project, before he left office at the end of 2018. The members are serving six-year terms, meaning Whitmer wouldn't be able to make her own appointments until after she won a second term.

Enbridge's Highland Eagle vessel stopped in Detroit on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, before heading to the Straits of Mackinac. The company plans to use the ship to collect rock samples along the lake bed where it wants to build a tunnel to house Line 5.

Whitmer's administration continues to believe the law that created the authority is unconstitutional, as Nessel opined in a March 2019 opinion said Tiffany Brown, Whitmer's spokeswoman. 

Nonetheless, the administration is "fully committed to following the law," and the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority has the power to "resume its work," Brown said

A coalition of environmental groups, Native American tribes and civic organizations plans to deliver a letter to the authority on Friday criticizing the agreement for the tunnel.

The coalition also cited a financial analysis commissioned by the state that found an agreement with Enbridge to pay up to $1.8 billion in costs stemming from an oil spill wouldn't be sufficient to ensure Enbridge’s cooperation. 

"We say you can’t and shouldn’t trust Enbridge and that the Corridor Authority should put any permitting for a Line 5 oil tunnel on hold unless and until Michigan taxpayers are guaranteed they won’t be on the hook for damages when Line 5 has a major rupture in the Great Lakes," said Sean McBrearty, coordinator for the group Oil & Water Don’t Mix.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com