Business, environmental groups clash at Line 5 hearing
At issue is a proposed replacement of the 67-year-old, twin pipelines Enbridge currently operates along the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom.
The Michigan Public Service Commission got an earful Monday — three hours of public comments on Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge's more than half-billion-dollar proposal to build a new oil and gas pipeline in a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom.
Emerging from Monday's public hearing were two groups that couldn't be much further apart on the tunnel concept: business and industry organizations, labor unions and some local politicians who want the project to proceed as quickly as possible, and environmental groups and some local residents who want a full review of potential impacts and alternatives.
At issue is a proposed replacement of the 67-year-old, twin pipelines Enbridge currently operates along the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom — aging pipelines that have suffered multiple, damaging anchor strikes and lost support structures in recent years. Many consider the lines — moving 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day east through the Upper Peninsula, into the Lower Peninsula and on to a hub in Sarnia, Ontario — a major threat to the Great Lakes and the economies built around them, should a spill like the one that occurred on Enbridge's oil transmission line in Marshall near the Kalamazoo River in 2010 occur there. That spill fouled more than 35 miles of the river, and took four years and more than $1 billion to clean up.
Enbridge's tunnel proposal — approved by state officials in the lame-duck final days of Gov. Rick Snyder's term — is opposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel. Environmentalists and others question whether the state should commit to a further 99 years of fossil fuel use at a time of growing concern about climate change, and say there are too many unknowns about the environmental impacts of the tunnel.
About 10 members of United Steelworkers made comments in support of a new Line 5 tunnel during the MPSC's online public hearing Monday, including Justin Donley, president of Local 912, representing just under 400 employees at the PBF Toledo Refining Complex in Oregon, Ohio, which gets most of its raw products for refining from Line 5.
"Without Line 5, these family-sustaining jobs will be gone, and all of the employment we support will be at risk," he said. "Our refinery provides the majority of jet fuel to Detroit Metro Airport, and there are no feasible and prudent alternatives of supply that would sustain operations at PBF Toledo Refinery."
The amount of oil and gas products moved through the refinery would equate to thousands of semi trucks per day, Donley said.
"The street system where the refinery is located is not capable of handling the traffic increase it would take to move our product. And even if it were, the refinery doesn't have the infrastructure to move that amount of material by truck."
State Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, noted Line 5 provides two-thirds of the Upper Peninsula, and some 600,000 resident of the Lower Peninsula, with propane vital to their winter heating. A temporary shutdown of the pipeline in 2014, coinciding with a frigid Polar Vortex, led to skyrocketing propane prices, he said.
"The Upper Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in the Midwest, and we simply cannot afford a quadrupling of the price of life-sustaining and life-saving propane," he said.
There is no reasonable alternative, LaFave said.
"Two thousand semi-trucks a day is not a reasonable alternative," he said. "They will not fit on U.S. 2, they will not fit on the Mackinac Bridge" and the trucks' daily CO2 emissions would be a climate change enhancer themselves. Lafave added that the U.P. doesn't have the necessary infrastructure for 900 train cars a day, either.
County commissioners Joe Bonovetz of Gogebic County and Joe Stevens of Dickinson County also expressed support for a Line 5 tunnel, citing the local need for propane and the lack of good alternatives to deliver it.
But Beth Wallace, Great Lakes freshwater campaigns manager for the environmental nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, called for an immediate shutdown of the Line 5 pipelines currently operating, and a thorough review of environmental impacts from the proposed tunnel project. She also called for a review of alternatives to the pipeline that isn't reliant upon "special interests on behalf of Enbridge."
"To date, there doesn't appear to be a full review (of the tunnel project) happening with any agency, and that's extremely concerning and inappropriate," she said.
Travis Warner, an MPSC public utilities engineer specialist overseeing the Enbridge tunnel proposal review, said in a presentation at the start of Monday's hearing that Enbridge officials believe the commission only has jurisdiction on the siting of a new pipeline, not on the project's design or construction. "That has already been a point of contention in public comments," he said.
Bentley Johnson, senior partnerships manager with the nonprofit Michigan League of Conservation Voters in Ann Arbor, noted that only one of the twin underwater pipelines has operated in the Straits in recent weeks, after significant damage was discovered to an anchor support on one of the lines in June.
"And we have not seen price hikes or shortages," he said.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Chemistry Council both also spoke in favor of the tunnel.
"The Great Lakes tunnel is without question the most practical long-term solution for delivering a secure energy supply to the region, while enhancing environmental safeguards at the Straits of Mackinac," said Mike Alaimo, director of environmental and energy affairs at the chamber.
Amid the industry and environmental groups offering comments Monday was a neighbor to the proposed tunnel site.
Patty Peek of St. Ignace is chairman of the nonprofit Straits of Mackinac Alliance, a group of citizens who live near the site where the tunnel would be built. Boulevard Drive, a popular road along the Lake Michigan shoreline offering "abundant bird life, wildflowers and unobstructed views of the Mackinac Bridge," would be changed for the worse by the project.
"The tunnel build, the extensive excavation in the Boulevard area and the potential for years of construction will significantly impact the local area," she said. "It will most definitely affect the quality of life, and potentially the value of homes of those of us who live nearby. How can Enbridge assure us that the drilling and blasting to replace the pipeline will not disrupt our aquifer and impact our wells?"
The MPSC is still accepting public comments on the proposed tunnel. Comments can be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail to Executive Secretary, Michigan Public Service Commission, 7109 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing, MI 48917. Reference Case No. U-20763.
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