New: Line 5 tunnel contractors hired by Enbridge have troubling track records

Nessel calls for investigation and a halt to project

By: - March 12, 2020 4:38 pm

Enbridge, Sti. Ignace | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 7:00 p.m., 3/12/20, with comment from Enbridge

New information uncovered by the Michigan Advance about the companies hired by Enbridge to build the Line 5 tunnel project, which will encase the dual pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac, has raised alarm bells for Michigan’s attorney general and environmental groups around the state.

There already are concerns about the integrity of Line 5, which is approaching 70 years old and was reportedly only built to last 50 years. Enbridge has maintained that building an underwater tunnel around the twin pipes is the safest option forward. The Canadian oil company brokered a deal with Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder before he left office to set the tunnel plan in motion and effectively tie the hands of the incoming Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration in its efforts to reverse the deal.

Now Enbridge has come under further scrutiny for the companies it has hired for the project, casting doubt on whether a tunnel is indeed the safest bet for protecting the Great Lakes from a potentially catastrophic oil spill.

On Friday, Enbridge announced that it had hired three companies to build and design the tunnel. The news release noted that the new tunnel-encased Line 5 segment is expected to be placed into service in 2024.

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After the London-based engineering firm Arup finalizes the designs, a partnership between Livonia-based Jay Dee Contractors Inc. and the U.S. affiliate of Japan-based Obayashi Corp., known jointly as Great Lakes Tunnel Constructors, will start building the tunnel. This will involve drilling into the bedrock under the Straits, and is expected to begin in 2021.

But just last year, Jay Dee was one of three plaintiffs sued in Macomb circuit court for negligence in connection with the infamous Fraser sinkhole collapse in 2016.

The complaint was filed last April and remains open. The Macomb County drainage district is seeking $70 million dollars plus costs and attorney fees to recover some of the costs of the Dec. 24, 2016. incident.

The sinkhole opened when a sewer line collapsed between Hayes and Utica near 15 Mile Road. The incident closed a portion of 15 Mile for nearly a year, temporarily displaced more than 20 families, and led to two homes being demolished.

Jay Dee hired the Detroit-based METCO to manage flow control for the project, which involves controlling the flow of wastewater during repair work. Flow control is inherently dangerous; without careful work and planning, it can result in “severe personal injury, death, and catastrophic property damage” if performed incorrectly, according to the case filing.

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The Michigan drainage district alleges that Jay Dee disregarded flow control protocols while overseeing the process, and allowed METCO to operate the system in a “dangerous and unsafe manner.” This alleged negligence ultimately resulted in the “catastrophic collapse” of an Macomb interceptor drain along 15 Mile Road.

Additionally, in 1999, Jay Dee was part of a joint venture contracted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to build a 1.23-mile deep-level rock tunnel which would have extended a sewer “outfall” system from the department’s treatment plant and under the Detroit River.

This project called Detroit River Outfall-2, or DRO-2, was never completed. All work came to a halt once the tunnel flooded with groundwater “to a level of impossible recovery” in April 2003. The company’s contract with the department (PC-709) was subsequently terminated.

A later attempt to proceed with a modified version of the failed project under a different contractor and plug a portion of the flooded tunnel was also ultimately abandoned.

The second company hired by Enbridge to build the tunnel, Obayashi Corp., was indicted on criminal charges in 2018 for violating antitrust laws after admitting to the Japan Fair Trade Commission that it had engaged in bid-rigging. The firm was banned from bidding on public sector projects for several months after.

“The case involved an investigation into a suspected violation of the Antimonopoly Act in bidding related to constructing the Chuo Shinkansen maglev line,” reads part of Obayashi’s 2018 corporate report. “We were subsequently indicted by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office. It is regrettable that this situation happened. I apologize deeply for the great concern this has caused our stakeholders.”

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In an emailed statement, Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy told the Advance that the contractors “were selected after the Enbridge Project team conducted a robust and lengthy selection process that occurred over the course of three months and involved several face-to-face meetings.”

Duffy added that the firms were hired because of their “relevant and recent tunneling experience in similar ground conditions.”*

Representatives of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) did not respond to a request for comment.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who made clear in her 2018 run for office that she would seek to shut down Line 5, is currently locked in several court battles against Enbridge to do so. One lawsuit seeks to shut down the dual pipelines as they currently exist, and her office is currently appealing a Court of Claims ruling from October that upheld Enbridge’s deal with Snyder.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

Enbridge is allowed to go forward with its tunnel plans in the meantime, since the Court of Claims’ decision was not put on hold while the higher court considers Nessel’s appeal.

Nessel told the Advance the new information is “alarming” and called for the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to investigate the contractors before approving their role on the project.

“With Enbridge’s dangerous track record and the ecological sensitivities of this massive project, one would think the company would be making every effort to select companies with unblemished work histories. This information is alarming and should make Michigan residents even more skeptical about the proposed tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac and Enbridge’s claims that it is diligently managing Line 5,” Nessel said.

“Enbridge should immediately disclose what inquiry it made into the past activities of these contractors, and how it still decided to hire them for this project. In addition, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority should investigate the contractors’ fitness before taking any action to approve their role.”

Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Michigan Clean Water Action and campaign coordinator for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition, said Enbridge’s hiring decisions further demonstrate its unwillingness to put environmental safety first. 

Line 5 protest | Laina G. Stebbins

“It is disturbing that Enbridge, who has already shown themselves to be fundamentally untrustworthy, has hired two other untrustworthy companies to lead construction of their proposed oil tunnel through the Great Lakes,” McBrearty said. “The history of poorly built projects and corruption with these companies calls the vetting process for this project into serious question. 

“Adding two other bad corporate actors with a history of failed projects and corrupt practices to the problem of Line 5 further shows that Enbridge values their bottom line more than our Great Lakes. This project must not be allowed to move forward,” McBrearty added.

David Holtz, spokesperson for the Michigan chapter of Sierra Club, said Enbridge’s decision to “hire a lead contractor accused of causing a giant sinkhole and who allegedly cuts corners to save money while inflating bills is alarming but predictable given Enbridge’s own dangerous track record. We can’t trust Enbridge. This is a lesson Michigan seems to keep wanting to re-learn.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.