‘There are alternatives to Line 5’: Public hearing on Enbridge tunnel project goes long

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Several Great Lakes Basin residents told members of a Michigan regulatory commission their concerns about Line 5 — the controversial dual oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac — as part of the commission’s role in a multi-agency decision of whether or not to allow construction work on the pipeline’s proposed replacement.

During a lengthy Monday evening hearing conducted via teleconference, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) heard from critics and supporters of Line 5. Canadian oil company Enbridge Energy, which owns the interstate pipeline, is courting the commission to approve its application to instead replace and relocate a segment of it through a proposed utility tunnel 60 to 250 feet below the Straits. 

The proposed project involves a new easement and a 99-year lease of public trust property. GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing the tunnel project in December 2018, shortly before leaving office.

Several Michigan residents spoke in favor of the project during the hearing, as did out-of-state workers who live in the Great Lakes region who said they are impacted by changes to Line 5. 

But opponents cited numerous risks the project poses to Michigan’s freshwater and wetlands environment and urged commissioners to ax the project and decommission Line 5.

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Donnie Blatt, a director for United Steelworkers in Ohio, said the current pipeline poses threats to Michigan’s environment and economy. But he added that he wants the commission to approve Enbridge’s application for the replacement project because delivering gas and oil to Michigan residents via truck and rail — not a pipeline — “places more people in Michigan and Ohio at a greater risk.”

“Please approve Enbridge’s application to place Line 5 pipelines within a tunnel deep below the Straits of Mackinac,” Blatt said. “This is the common sense solution to further protect our environment and provide the energy that we all rely on with no cost to taxpayers.”

Several workers echoed Blatt’s sentiments, as did state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), who told commissioners that 220,000 residents in the Upper Peninsula rely on Line 5 for propane and other alternatives for supplying gas and oil — like trucking it in — won’t work because of the region’s infrastructure. He also said residents in Michigan’s northern region can’t afford any other method of getting gas and oil beyond a pipeline.

“The Upper Peninsula is one of the poorest economic regions in the Midwest and we simply cannot afford a quadrupling of life-sustaining and life-saving programs,” LaFave said.

The hearing lasted well beyond the scheduled 4 to 7 p.m. time frame. Public comments were continuous, with those who had pre-registered for the event speaking first.

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One participant, upon her turn to speak, accused Enbridge and workers in the energy industry of hampering public comment during the hearing.

“It is clear the industry has flooded this pre-registration for the comment period and has largely shut out the public voice on this issue,” she said. “I urge the Public Service Commission to provide alternative format for public comment on these platforms into the future so that these multi-million dollar companies and corporations don’t shut out public comment and critical opportunities for commenting.”

St. Ignace resident Patty Peek, who chairs the citizen group Straits of Mackinac Alliance, told commissioners that she and other property owners in that region are “ground zero” for issues related to Line 5 tunnel and pipe replacement. 

They are strongly opposed to the proposed tunnel build and having any oil flowing in or under the Straits, Peek said.

“Why would the state of Michigan be willing to sacrifice this unique place for a pipeline tunnel project that is unnecessary to the well-being of our citizens?” Peek said. “Why settle for generations of Michiganders with a tunnel that may very well be obsolete in two years? There are alternatives to Line 5.”

Whitmer task force lays out energy alternatives to Line 5 for U.P. residents

 

Some opponents of the tunnel project brought up the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill as reason to scrutinize and deny Enbridge’s application. That spill occurred when a pipeline controlled by Enbridge burst and affected a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

“The construction of the ill-conceived Line 5 tunnel – peddled as a safe alternative by Enbridge and their lobbyists – carries huge financial and ecological risks,” said Sean McBrearty, a coordinator for Oil & Water Don’t Mix, an anti-Line 5 coalition. 

Enbridge has a “terrible track record” in terms of safety and transparency and shouldn’t be trusted to operate the pipeline, McBrearty said. 

“It’s past time to end the threat and decommission Line 5 before Michigan has another avoidable, major man-made disaster on top of Enbridge’s 2010 oil spill catastrophe into the Kalamazoo River, the lead poisoning of Flint’s water and residents, the devastating Midland dam collapse,” he added. 

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In a statement, Enbridge Energy spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company looked forward to the MSPC hearing process. He also noted that the GOP-led state House of Representatives and 24 Michigan counties have passed resolutions supporting the project.

“We believe a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives make this process better, and we welcome the wide-ranging public input that is part of the hearings,” Duffy said. “We know the majority of Michiganders support the Great Lakes Tunnel project, including the replacement pipeline at issue in the MPSC proceeding, and we are committed to building it.”

Additional public comments can be read on the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) website

The commission may not make a decision regarding the application until mid-2021, per their calendar of scheduled hearing dates for the matter.

C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.