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Enbridge to move forward with tunnel permitting amid pandemic

Record Eagle/Pete Rodman
Enbridge wants to build a bedrock tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to house a replacement for twin oil pipelines that currently sit on the lakebed.

Enbridge Energy will not delay submitting permits for its controversial Great Lakes Tunnel Project because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tribal governments that oppose the project want Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to slow the process down. They say it’s impossible to prepare for public comment and official tribal consultations when most tribal staff are sheltering in place.

“We continue to work on preparing our joint permit application,” said Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy in an email statement. “We are looking at submitting that this month. As part of our agreements with the state of Michigan we are working under a set timeline that has required deadlines for moving the tunnel project forward.”

The planned tunnel would house a replacement for the twin 67-year-old pipelines that sit on the lakebed under the Straits of Mackinac. The pipelines are part of Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries light crude and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario.

EGLE must review and approve or deny Enbridge’s applications within a time frame that ranges from two to five months. The Michigan Public Service Commission must authorize the siting of the tunnel in a separate process that lasts about a year.

Tribal governments in the region are opposed to the tunnel and the continued operation of Line 5. EGLE, the governor’s office, and the MPSC held a call with tribes on Wednesday afternoon, informing them of Enbridge’s plans.

Kathleen Brosemer, the Environmental Director for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, was on the call. She said being asked to prepare for public comment and tribal consultation on a normal timeline right now is unbelievable.

“To think about all of this clock starts ticking .... in the middle of a global pandemic, when most of us are working from home if we're working at all, when all the governments are in disarray, the state government as well as the tribal governments,” said Brosemer. “It's appalling.”

She lives on the Canadian side of Sault Ste. Marie and says she can’t cross the border to her office at the moment.

“I couldn't get to my desk if I wanted to. I can't get my files,” said Brosemer.

Sault tribe chairman Aaron Payment sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday asking her to take executive action and relax the statutory timelines for the permit applications. The letter stated tribes were told Enbridge could submit applications as early as next week.

“The public interest in adequate review and comment, and the state of Michigan's responsibility to fully engage with our sovereign tribal governments, who share authority for environmental regulation in this territory, necessitates this action under the current emergency,” wrote Payment. “These public interests far outweigh Enbridge's interest in a speedy resolution of its permit applications.”

Bryan Newland, the chairman of the nearby Bay Mills Indian Community, says tribal governments have a lot of other things to deal with right now. They are currently operating without normal revenue streams from their shut-down casinos and have stripped government operations to essential services like healthcare and law enforcement.

"Shame on Enbridge for trying to profit during the public's misery," he said.

EGLE confirmed that the meeting took place in anticipation of permit applications for the utility tunnel.

"Like the rest of state government, EGLE continues to operate and serve the public," wrote EGLE spokesman Scott Dean in an email statement. "As part of that mission, we continue to receive and process permit applications. Having said that, we’ve received no permit applications from Enbridge. We are adapting our processes to handle permit requests in way that protects public health, complies with the law, and allows meaningful public participation and input. We are evaluating these adapted processes on an ongoing basis, given the fluid nature of the COVID-19 situation. Our top priority is and will continue to be protection of public health and the environment and slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus."

Kaye LaFond
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.