State officials at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) heard its first of two public hearings Tuesday afternoon on a permit request for Enbridge allowing the Canadian oil company to discharge a significant amount of wastewater into Lake Michigan as part of its Line 5 tunnel project.

The meeting ran for more than two hours. EGLE said there were upward of 100 attendees logged onto the virtual meeting at once, and more than 30 participants voiced their public comments on the Zoom call.

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit process has been in place in Michigan since the 1970s in order to impose regulations that control discharge of pollutants into surface waters.

Enbridge’s NPDES permit, if granted, would allow the company to discharge up to 5 million gallons per day of various groundwater seepages, wastewater, chemical slurries and other liquids into Lake Michigan during the tunnel’s construction. The plan is to encase a new Line 5 pipeline in an underground concrete tunnel before decommissioning the aging twin pipelines that currently run under the Straits of Mackinac.

The company has argued that the tunnel is the best option to protect the Great Lakes from an accidental Line 5 oil spill, and worth the increased loading of pollutants into the surface water.

Geologists condemn Line 5 tunnel plan: ‘Permitting the project at this time would be a mistake’

The majority of attendees at Tuesday’s hearing urged EGLE to deny the NPDES permit requests. Participants ranged from longtime residents with homes close to the Straits to tribal representatives defending their treaty rights, environmentalists and young activists.

“Enbridge looks forward to the process established by the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE),” Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email Tuesday. “This public hearing shows the process for approving our application is moving forward in a timely manner.

“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.”

Many speakers asking EGLE to withhold the NPDES permit also raised concerns flagged Monday by two longtime geologists at a virtual press conference, including possibilities like sinkholes, methane explosions and other dangerous conditions for construction workers.

Line 5 map | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

“You’re playing Russian roulette with the largest resource of freshwater in North America,” said Ann Arbor resident Monica Knowles.

Some Kalamazoo-area residents cited the disastrous Line 6B rupture in 2010 as an example of Enbridge’s untrustworthiness. That oil spill into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River remains the third-largest inland oil spill in American history.

The largest and second-largest inland oil spills, both in Minnesota, also came from Enbridge pipelines.

Whitney Gravelle, tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Upper Peninsula near the Straits, said allowing Enbridge’s tunnel project to go forward would be in violation of the tribe’s long-held treaty rights.

“Bay Mills Indian Community opposes placement of Line 5 in a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac because it lengthens the life of a corroded, dented, aging pipeline that is an immediate threat to the vast ecosystem of the Great Lakes, a threat to the treaty-protected rights of tribes, a threat to the cultural resource that is the Straits of Mackinac, and provides limited value to our state’s families and businesses,” Gravelle said.

No, Nessel’s Line 5 lawsuit isn’t over

Gravelle added that Michigan’s tribal nations have not received answers from Enbridge on many “pressing issues” regarding the project, including how it plans to mitigate environmental impacts from the tunnel construction like bentonite clay in the surface water.

“The role of this department is not to blindly issue permits regardless of the consequences to our natural resources. An agency that simply rubber-stamps major harmful projects like this one is of no use to the people of Michigan,” said Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Michigan Clean Water Action and campaign coordinator for Oil & Water Don’t Mix.

“The role of EGLE is to protect our environment and Great Lakes, not Enbridge’s bottom line. We are counting on you to do the right thing and deny these permit requests immediately,” McBrearty said.

The comments in support of the NPDES permit were in the minority by about a 1:3 ratio. Those who spoke (seven total) primarily represented business, labor and industry interests, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Petroleum Association.

Those in favor of the NPDES permits held up Enbridge’s tunnel plan as the most viable solution to protecting the Straits from an oil spill. One speaker described Enbridge’s requested wastewater discharge of 5 million gallons per day into Lake Michigan as “minimal.”

State Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona) was among the speakers in favor of the tunnel permits. He said he has visited Enbridge’s facilities, seen their geotechnical boring samples from the Straits and believes it is EGLE’s lawful obligation to issue permits as soon as possible to move the tunnel project forward.

EGLE’s second public hearing on the NPDES permit is set to take place at 6 p.m. on Oct. 6.

The department will also be holding two public hearings on a separate application requested by Enbridge for the project, this time involving its potential impacts on nearby wetlands, at 1 p.m. Thursday and at 6 p.m. Oct. 8.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice. 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. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two cats Rainn and Remy.