DETROIT (CN) — Michigan’s environmental agency said Friday it approved construction permits for a tunnel that would allow energy company Enbridge to replace and improve dual underwater pipelines in the northern part of the state that are vulnerable to passing ships.
Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office said in a statement that the permits issued by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy did not change her belief that a shutdown this spring is necessary due to safety concerns.
“The existing dual pipelines through the Straits of Mackinac present an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes and threaten over 350,000 jobs in Michigan that rely on Michigan’s pristine natural resources. The Governor and DNR determined that Enbridge must cease operation of the dual pipelines by mid-May of 2021,” it said. “Today’s decision by EGLE to issue permits related to tunnel construction, consistent with law, in no way lessens the pressing need for a shutdown of the existing pipelines by mid-May and Enbridge’s legal obligation to comply with that deadline.”
The EGLE stressed the tunnel permit approval did not mean the pipeline replacement project was moving forward and that its authorization is under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which has a docket open on the topic.
The agency also said it consulted the State Historic Preservation Office, which provided guidelines to protect “cultural resources” as construction begins. Enbridge is also required to obtain approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the terms of the Clean Water Act.
“EGLE is obligated to review permit applications with the goal of protecting the environment and public health, but within the confines of Michigan law,” said Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division. “During our review of this proposed project, our top priority has been protecting the Straits of Mackinac and the surrounding wetlands, aquatic life, and other natural and cultural resources from adverse environmental impacts.”
The permits require Enbridge to develop and submit plans for a wastewater treatment system with operational and construction procedures that promote water flow and ensure discharged water is less than 85 degrees Fahrenheit to protect underwater life. The construction must also avoid any damage to neighboring historic sites.
Professor Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute at Tulane University, believes Enbridge can pull it off.
“There are numerous pipelines that have been drilled under waterways, including several under the Mississippi River, here in Louisiana. There is even a short fabricated tunnel line carrying cryogenic LNG [liquified natural gas] between an offshore loading facility and a shore terminal that supports LNG export in Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore,” he wrote in an email. “So, if the question is about underwater tunnels and the dangers of maritime traffic, the answer is that they can be designed to operate safely for a number of years.”
Smith also thinks Enbridge knows what it is doing.
“I would say they are one of the more experienced pipeline operators in North America,” he said. “I would suggest they are also trying to be responsible by replacing the aging line with a better replacement.”
The 68-year-old dual pipelines located in the Straits of Mackinac were the subject of Whitmer’s ire when she and the Department of Natural Resources sued Enbridge last November, citing a lack of compliance with safety standards.
The lawsuit filed in Ingham County Circuit Court sought a declaratory judgment that an easement for the pipelines was properly terminated and requested an injunction to stop Enbridge from further operating the twin pipelines.
“After spending more than 15 months reviewing Enbridge’s record over the last 67 years, it is abundantly clear that today’s action is necessary. Enbridge’s historic failures and current non-compliance present too great a risk to our Great Lakes and the people who depend upon them,” DNR Director Dan Eichinger said in a statement at the time.