State panel says Line 5 tunnel application needs more info about fire, explosion risk

Enviros praise MPSC reopening Enbridge case

By: - July 7, 2022 3:58 pm

Line 5 map | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

Rather than approving or rejecting an Enbridge application to replace the embattled Line 5 pipeline with a new, tunnel-enclosed pipeline under the Mackinac Straits, a three-member state regulatory panel on Thursday instead said it needs more important safety information from Enbridge before deciding.

“After a review of the testimony, exhibits and briefing on record in this case, the order before you finds that the record is deficient of certain information relating to tunnel engineering and safety, and the risk of fire and/or explosion related to electrical equipment,” said Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) staff attorney Alissa Day during Thursday’s meeting.

The commissioners unanimously adopted the order, which reopens the case in order to let the Canadian pipeline company file more relevant evidence about the concerns.

The order also found that Enbridge needs to file information “relating to safety and maintenance of the current dual pipelines, including leak detection systems and shutdown procedures.”

Environmental groups have long sought to have the MPSC consider the risk of possible fires and/or explosions during tunnel construction, as well as the safety of the current pipeline. Enbridge has largely dismissed the concerns, but is now tasked with confronting those more directly.

Enbridge seeks to dismiss expert testimony warning of explosion risk for Line 5 tunnel

The last set of briefs in the tunnel permitting case were filed in March and the panel has deliberated since then. Aside from the MPSC, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) also needs to sign off on permits in order for the tunnel project to become a reality.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has already granted the permits necessary from their end. That decision in January 2021 was met with outcry from environmentalists and tribal citizens.

The MPSC specifically has authority over the siting/routing of the Line 5 replacement segment that Enbridge seeks to route through the planned tunnel, as well as the authorization for construction to start on the new pipeline segment.

Enbridge first submitted its application with the MPSC in April 2020. Claiming it did not need the panel’s approval, it had asked the MPSC either concur that its authorization was not needed or immediately grant the company’s application.

The panel did neither, and instead spurred a contested case hearing with an administrative law judge. That judge ruled during the process that the MPSC is indeed charged with granting or denying those permits.

“Enbridge will continue to work with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to address any remaining questions that Commissioners may have regarding the relocation of the Line 5 pipelines across the Straits of Mackinac into the Great Lakes Tunnel,” Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said Thursday.

He added that Enbridge believes “extensive information documenting the engineering and safety of the Great Lakes Tunnel is already included in the MPSC record.”

When the Advance asked Duffy whether could speak to the specific concerns of the commission regarding a possible fire and/or explosion during construction, he said simply that Enbridge “will provide information to address any remaining questions.”

Enbridge sign, St. Ignace | Laina G. Stebbins

The anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition celebrated the MPSC ruling as a sign that its safety concerns are being taken seriously.

“Clearly, the commissioners are concerned about the monumental risks involved with this proposal,” spokesperson Sean McBrearty said. “The risk of explosion, safety concerns about operating an oil and gas pipeline in a confined space under the Great Lakes, and the fact of Enbridge’s abysmal safety record, including the 2010 Kalamazoo oil spill all deserve closer scrutiny.

“We applaud the commissioners’ prudent order today, and encourage them to continue closely scrutinizing the facts on this issue. Enbridge cannot be trusted to operate an outdated pipeline in the Great Lakes, and they certainly can’t be trusted to build an oil tunnel that would keep our water and climate at risk for generations to come,” McBrearty continued.

The administrative law judge in the case will decide on scheduling in the now-reopened case.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. 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.