Enbridge secures 1 of 3 permits needed for Line 5 tunnel, angering enviros

Legal battle against pipeline heats up in court

By: - January 29, 2021 2:29 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Embattled Canadian oil company Enbridge has now cleared one of three major permitting hurdles in its venture to replace the aging Line 5 pipeline with a new tunnel-encased line under the Straits of Mackinac.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) announced Friday morning that it has decided to grant certain permits for the tunnel project after nine months of review, four public information sessions, four public hearings, four tribal consultations and more than 2,600 public comments.

The permits approved Friday include a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater discharge permit as well as permits related to wetlands impacts and bottomlands protection.

Enbridge still has a ways to go before securing all the necessary regulatory go-aheads for the tunnel project, however. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) have yet to grant permits needed by the Canadian company to start construction.

“The EGLE permits are an important milestone for the tunnel project and are part of the process to authorize its construction,” Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in a statement.

The MPSC announced last month that, in the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordering Enbridge’s long standing easement with Michigan to be dissolved and revoked, and for the company to shut down the nearly 68-year-old pipeline by May, the regulatory body would order a rehearing on the project.

According to MPSC filings, the bulk of the rescheduled motions in that case are not set to begin until August.

Importantly, the permitting of a new tunnel project does not affect the state’s ongoing legal battles to shut down the existing Line 5 pipeline, which EGLE emphasized in its release Friday.

“EGLE acknowledged public concerns about the existing oil pipeline and affirmed the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ conclusion that the current pipeline violates the Public Trust Doctrine and poses an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes,” the department said in the statement.

Enbridge is fighting back against the order in federal court and is attempting to bring the state’s lawsuit into federal court as well. Attorney General Dana Nessel’s 2019 lawsuit seeking to shut down Line 5 on public trust grounds also remains ongoing.

“EGLE is obligated to review permit applications with the goal of protecting the environment and public health, but within the confines of Michigan law,” said Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division. “During our review of this proposed project, our top priority has been protecting the Straits of Mackinac and the surrounding wetlands, aquatic life, and other natural and cultural resources from adverse environmental impacts.”

A number of advocacy groups have sharply condemned the department’s permitting approval, including: Oil & Water Don’t Mix, Clean Water Action, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Great Lakes Business Network, the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), Michigan Climate Action Network (MiCAN) and Progress Michigan.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) also criticized the decision.

“While I understand that EGLE approved Enbridge’s application based on existing, defined parameters for review and our current environmental laws, I am still extremely disappointed in this development because Line 5 poses great threats to the health and safety of our Great Lakes and our economy,” Bayer said in a statement.

“Facts matter, and based on Enbridge’s history of disregarding environmental regulations and poor maintenance of its pipelines, I still believe there are opportunities here to look for alternative energy sources and delivery methods that don’t put our waters and way of life at risk.”

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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.