Army Corps to conduct enviro impact review for Line 5 tunnel, promises tribal input

By: - June 24, 2021 3:39 pm

Community paddle on Jiimaan | Philip Hutchinson

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) said this week it will be conducting a full analysis on the potential environmental impacts of Canadian oil company Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 pipeline tunnel before deciding whether to issue permits for its construction.

Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, announced the decision Wednesday, drawing praise from environmental and business groups who oppose the controversial oil pipeline and its replacement project in the Straits of Mackinac.

“I have concluded that an EIS [environmental impact statement] is the most appropriate level of review because of the potential for impacts significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” Pinkham said. “USACE will ensure all potential impacts and reasonable alternatives associated with this project are thoroughly analyzed and will ultimately support a decision on the permit application.

“The USACE received thousands of public comments and tribal input on the proposed project, which warrant further review through an EIS, including potential impacts to navigation.”

In its statement, USACE also noted that it “is committed to ensuring that meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations occurs per President [Joe] Biden’s Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships.”

Pinkham is a citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe rooted in North-Central Idaho. Prior to his appointment to the Army Corps, he has been on record as being against the now-scuttled Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been set to transport oil through tribal lands. Pinkham also has been vocal about the need for sovereign tribal governments to be treated as equal decision-makers by the federal government.

His appointment in April was seen by many in Indigenous communities as a significant opportunity for Native American representation on the federal level — particularly important representation, many tribes feel, on the issues of oil pipelines that often run through Native lands and waters.

Pinkham will remain USACE’s highest ranked political appointee until Biden nominates a Senate-confirmed, permanent assistant secretary.

All 12 tribes in Michigan are opposed to the Line 5 tunnel project and the 68-year-old Line 5 pipeline itself.

Members of the Great Lakes Business Network (GLBN), the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition and the Bay Mills Indian Community offered statements of support for the USACE decision.

“Today’s decision has enormous significance because the EIS will entail an in-depth analysis of the pipeline tunnel’s environmental impacts,” said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

“… We are encouraged to see that the Army Corps of Engineers heeded our call to undertake a more rigorous analysis of the environmental impacts — and impacts on treaty-protected interests — of Enbridge’s massive tunnel project underneath the Straits of Mackinac. Bay Mills remains very concerned that the pipeline threatens our way of life,” Gravelle said.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in a statement that Wednesday’s decision by USACE to conduct an EIS instead of an environmental assessment (EA) for the tunnel “will lead to a delay in the start of construction on this important project.”

An EA would have been much more limited in scope; whereas an EIS takes a comprehensive account of the reasonable alternatives, cumulative impacts and geographic context of a project under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

Duffy said regardless of the decision, Enbridge will continue to work with USACE toward “a successful conclusion to this process.”

To build its proposed tunnel-encased oil pipeline under the Mackinac Straits, Enbridge needs permits from USACE, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Of those, EGLE is the only one to grant permits so far.

As for the MPSC, the three-member panel ruled in April that the commission will be considering the proposed tunnel’s climate change impacts in permit hearings — marking the first time a Michigan agency will consider greenhouse gas emissions as part of a MEPA (Michigan Environmental Protection Act) analysis.

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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.