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State board approves Line 5 tunnel permit, inching project closer to construction

Line 5 marker in front of the Mackinac Straits
Teresa Homsi
A pipeline marker for Line 5 stands in front of the northern side of the Straits of Mackinac. In the background, the Mackinac Bridge is obscured by clouds.

The Line 5 tunnel is a step closer to being constructed after a state board greenlit a portion of the project Friday.

The Michigan Public Service Commission approved a permit that would allow Enbridge to place a new 4-mile section of Line 5 into a proposed tunnel under the lakebed of the Mackinac Straits.

During the MPSC's Dec. 1 meeting, commissioners concluded there is enough of a public need for the pipeline, and the project meets the state's safety and engineering standards.

MPSC chair Dan Scripps said a Line 5 oil spill in the Straits would be "catastrophic," and the tunnel is the best alternative in reducing the risk of a spill.

"I know some of you are disappointed with our decision - I acknowledge that - but I also want to assure you that your participation improved the process and result," Scripps said. "The perspectives shared helped crystallize our focus as we continued to dig into the evidentiary record."

The MPSC said it received more than 23,000 comments from the public and compiled more than 2,500 pages of documents in its review process.

"[By relocating the pipeline to the tunnel], we are an important step closer to finally, once and for all removing, the threat the pipeline poses to the Great Lakes," Scripps said. "And on that basis, I'm pleased to support this order."

The permit was approved by commissioners Scripps and Katherine Peretick. Alessandra Carreon abstained from voting, citing that she only recently joined the MPSC.

The MPSC said the permit carries a few conditions, including that: the project cannot significantly change, third-party utilities in the tunnel must be approved by the MPSC and the project must exceed minimum federal regulations.

During public comment, several people expressed their frustration with the decision, including Andrea Pierce from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

"I am disgusted that these children [who spoke prior] have to sit here and feel hopeless," said Pierce, a manager with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. "You know what it's like to be their ages and feel hopeless in our government? Seriously, you were supposed to protect our Great Lakes, protect us."

Others at the meeting, like Holland resident Bob Hamilton, said approving the permit fails to address the immediate danger of the pipeline, which continues to operate.

"[This] is a sleight-of-hand distraction," Hamilton said, "so that Enbridge can continue to pump their petroleum under the Straits of Mackinac through the existing inadequate and unsafe infrastructure."

In a statement, Sean McBrearty, with Oil and Water Don't Mix, wrote the MPSC is putting the state in "uncharted, dangerous territory while ignoring warnings by independent industry experts...."

Enbridge said the MPSC's decision is a "major step forward" in securing "vital energy people in Michigan and surrounding region rely on every day."

"We recognize the tremendous investment of time and deliberation by the MPSC and staff leading to this decision," wrote Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesperson. "The MPSC carefully examined this complex issue and considered many viewpoints, questions, concerns and ideas."

Enbridge is still missing a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers needed to construct the tunnel, which will be decided on in 2026.

For a full recording of the Dec. 1 meeting, visit the MPSC YouTube channel or watch below.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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