Liz Kirkwood, environmental attorney and executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), reacts to news today that the State of Michigan has granted environmental permit approval for Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac:
“We are deeply disappointed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE’s) decision today to approve permits for Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac.
“EGLE’s permits ignore direct adverse evidence of the tunnel’s risk to surface waters, wetlands, public trust bottomlands, cultural resources, endangered species, treaty fishing rights, climate change impacts, local economic impacts, tourism, and public and private property. In addition, EGLE’s permits ignore feasible and prudent alternatives to the proposed tunnel.
“EGLE’s action is directly at odds with the legal process underpinning the Governor Whitmer’s revocation and termination on November 13 of the easement allowing Line 5 to operate in the public waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes. The governor’s November decision was based on determinations required under the Public Trust Doctrine. Those same findings, required by law, were never made for the proposed tunnel.”
Many years and legal and regulatory hurdles remain in the state and federal permitting process for Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel, which might never be built, but continues to distract from the clear and present danger posed by the decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac.
Final approval of Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel remains in doubt as permitting reviews continue by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is assessing environmental impacts and alternatives, and the Michigan Public Service Commission, which is considering the project’s public need, climate impacts, and location.
The proposed tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter and 4 miles long, would house a new Line 5 pipeline. Enbrige’s goal is for Line 5 to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
Enbridge has a terrible track record of oil spills across Michigan from Line 5 and from Line 6b, which in 2010 dumped more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Editor’s note: This is an Oil & Water Don’t Mix (O&WDM) media release.
Twelve organizations and Michigan tribal representatives today (Dec. 7, 2020) called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the Enbridge Line 5 Straits of Mackinac oil tunnel project. If not dismissed now, the Army Corps risks a repeat of a July court ruling that threw out a permit in another major federal pipeline case.
In their submission of comments, the groups told the Army Corps that the permit for the tunnel should not be approved without a full review that evaluates the consequences of an oil tunnel for the Great Lakes, coastal wetlands, historic archeological finds, and navigation within the Straits of Mackinac.
“Enbridge’s proposed tunnel is a major federal action demanding a full environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “A review of Enbridge’s incomplete application reveals a highly controversial project with extraordinary impacts to coastal wetlands, millions of gallons a day of surface wastewater discharges and water treatment additives, underwater archeological sites, incomplete geotechnical studies for tunnel construction, lack of a credible estimate of project cost, and unprecedented climate change impacts to extend the life of Line 5 for the next 99 years.”
Official comments from the organizations come as the Army Corps holds a single public hearing today on Enbridge’s proposal for a federal Clean Water Act permit to construct the oil tunnel. The Army Corps public comment period ends on Dec. 17. It comes as the Michigan Public Service Commission and the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy also evaluate permit applications from Enbridge and follows a decision by Gov. Whitmer to revoke Enbridge’s operating agreement for the existing Line 5, citing the company’s history of failures and ongoing, incurable violations of the agreement.
“Line 5 will transport 540,000 barrels of oil that when burned will emit over 57 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon annually – more carbon than is emitted by the nation’s three largest coal plants combined,” said Kirkwood. “Let’s not forget what’s at stake – a proposal to build a mega tunnel in the heart of the largest and most valuable fresh surface water system in the world. It’s difficult to conceive of a project more worthy of a full environmental impact statement under federal law.”
The groups and tribal representatives warn that approving Enbridge’s proposed application would violate the same federal law that prompted the U.S. District Court in July to block a final permit for the Dakota Access pipeline in the Dakotas. In the Dakota Access case, the court said the Army Corps must conduct a full review under the National Environmental Policy Act because it was a major federal project with widespread potential impacts, including threats to drinking water sources for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
The Army Corps has yet to decide whether Enbridge’s permit application for the tunnel should be subjected to a full federal review that could include looking at other alternatives, including existing oil pipelines within Enbridge’s massive North America pipeline system.
Concerns with the tunnel proposal cited by the groups and shared with the Army Corps include:
Drinking water threat. Enbridge proposes withdrawing 4 million gallons a day of water and discharging 5 million gallons a day of water and slurry into the Straits of Mackinac. Nearby communities of Charlevoix, Mackinac Island, St. Ignace, Alpena, East Tawas, and Tawas City rely on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron for drinking water.
Geotechnical problems. Independent experts who studied Enbridge’s proposed tunnel plan concluded that it “raises serious concerns regarding the feasibility, integrity, and planning for the construction of the tunnel.” More than 75 percent of the tunnel boring area is in “very poor” or “poor” quality rock conditions, the experts warned, also citing the potential for explosions because of the presence of methane gas.
Sovereign tribal and fishing rights. The Straits of Mackinac are the spawning and fishing grounds for 60 percent of the commercial tribal whitefish catch, which could be negatively impacted by the tunnel project and continued operation of Line 5 in the Straits.
Northern Michigan economy. Emmet, Cheboygan, and Mackinac counties would be heavily impacted by the tunnel project, straining police, fire, health emergency services, and rental housing that would typically go to seasonal tourism workers who constitute an annual $153 million payroll. Dust, noise, and intense trucking and machinery activity will also stress local communities.
“Michigan deserves more than a rubber-stamp permit approval from the Army Corps,” said Sean McBrearty, Oil & Water Don’t Mix coordinator. “What we need is for the Army Corps to follow the law and prioritize protecting the Great Lakes, our drinking water, and our climate. A Canadian company’s oil profits shouldn’t be more important than Michigan’s future.”
Those submitting joint comments include For Love of Water (FLOW), League of Women Voters of Michigan, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, TC350, the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA), the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and the Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice, and the Environment.
Oil & Water Don’t Mix is a citizens’ movement committed to protecting the Great Lakes and decommissioning Enbridge’s dangerous Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. More information: https://www.oilandwaterdontmix.org/about.
Photo of flooding in Fishtown Leland by Isaac Dedenbach
Fluctuating Great Lakes water levels are nothing new. Since records have been kept, Great Lakes levels have varied by approximately 6 feet. What is new is a rapid swing from record-low levels as recently as 2013 to record highs today. According to statistics from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, water levels for lakes Michigan and Huron (considered the same body of water because they are joined at the Straits of Mackinac) are approximately 2 inches above their previous record for the month of July. Water levels on July 10 were 582.15 feet above sea level — that’s 3 inches higher than their level from a year ago and 33 inches above their monthly long-term average. Those record-high water levels are projected to drop 1 inch by August 10.
There is good reason to believe that this dramatic increase is associated with climate change. The high water has gnawed away at beaches and bluffs, damaging homes and infrastructure, forcing businesses to raise their foundations or move to higher ground, and creating demand by shoreline property owners for environmental permits to armor their piece of the shoreline. Please visit our High Water webpage “Soaked: Living with Climate Change and Record High Waters in the Great Lakes Basin”.
This summer, FLOW’s Milliken Intern for Communications, Emma Moulton, is interviewing civic leaders, educators, and business owners in Leland’s historic Fishtown shanty village about how the record-high water levels are affecting their livelihood. Check out those video interview postcards below:
“It can be dangerous for tourists to walk here along the docks in the potentially electrified water of Fishtown,” says Nora Johnson, who works at the Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown Leland, which has been flooded frequently by record-high lake levels this year. The popular Cheese Shanty got a remodel early this spring when its foundation was raised, which has spared it from the flooding that has affected other Fishtown businesses.
“We keep a close eye on the water levels because our facility is on the waterfront,” said Fred Sitkins, executive director of Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association. “Our schooner dock has seen significant erosion. High water levels have ruined this park [by our dock] and put our dock in jeopardy, and they are depositing sand and creating a new beach area that wasn’t there before. We may be confronted with the situation of having water where we don’t want it and having to dredge where we need deep water. It’s a constant issue for us.”
“In our store it’s pretty much wet all the time,” said Nels Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Fishery in Fishtown Leland. “We don’t have outlets by the floors. We all wear boots and oilers. But if the water gets up a lot higher, it might start to get into places that are not supposed to be wet. The record-breaking high water levels this year “have been worse than other years. These buildings are not all built at the same level. It started to cause some problems and we had to make changes. The water levels have limited the time that sometime Fishtown business have been able to be open.”
“The high water levels are majorly impacting our summer,” said Maggie Mielczarek, owner of Leland gal in Fishtown Leland. “We have decided to transition from our normal shanty space in Fishtown to a temporary two-month pop-up in the heart of Leland. We have been getting water in here all season. It happened a couple times last year. But this year it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it will continue to flood. Because you have to step down to get into our store, once the water goes in you have to pump it out. If the water table is high the water just comes back in through the foundation. So it’s been a major impact on us. Combined with everything else going on, we’ve made the decision to be outside and up the street.”