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Army Corps plans extensive review of Great Lakes tunnel plan

Underwater photo of Line 5
SCREEN SHOT OF A BALLARD MARINE INSPECTION VIDEO / ENBRIDGE ENERGY
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday it would conduct an extensive review of Enbridge Energy’s plan to build an oil pipeline tunnel beneath a Great Lakes channel in Michigan, which could significantly delay the project.

The tunnel would house a replacement for a portion of Enbridge’s Line 5 that crosses the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, a roughly 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometers-long) waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has issued a permit for the $500 million tunnel, but approval from the Army Corps also is needed. The federal agency would consider potential effects on the straits and adjacent wetlands.

The Corps could have settled for a narrowly tailored examination of needs and purposes for the tunnel before making its ruling. But it opted for an environmental impact statement, which involves a more comprehensive study, including consideration of reasonable alternatives.

“I have concluded that an EIS is the most appropriate level of review because of the potential for impacts significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” said Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

Thousands of comments from the public and indigenous tribes justified the deeper investigation, Pinkham said, adding that navigation in the busy shipping channel also was also a consideration.

Enbridge had pledged to complete the tunnel by 2024 but is “evaluating the timeline” in view of the government’s decision, which will hold up construction, spokesman Ryan Duffy said.

“Placing a pipeline in a new Great Lakes tunnel will provide extra layers of safety and environmental protection and make what is currently a safe pipeline even safer, while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region,” Enbridge said.

The Canadian company, based in Calgary, Alberta, reached a deal in 2018 with former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to construct the tunnel. It came amid pressure from area tribes, tourist businesses and environmental groups to shut down Line 5, which carries oil and natural gas liquids between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.

Critics contend the underwater section — two parallel pipes laid in 1953 — is vulnerable to a spill that could pollute hundreds of miles of waters and shorelines. Enbridge, backed by industry and labor groups, says it is in good condition and has never leaked.