By JOHN FLESHER | AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal review of plans for a Great Lakes oil pipeline tunnel will take more than a year longer than originally planned, officials said Thursday, likely delaying completion of the project — if approved — until 2030 or later.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had intended to release a draft report later this year on how the proposed tunnel beneath Michigan's Straits of Mackinac would affect the environment. Enbridge Energy wants it to house a section of its Line 5 oil pipeline that crosses the bottom of the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
But under the new timeline, the report won't be issued until spring 2025. An approval decision would be expected in early 2026.
The Corps' Detroit district office said it revised the schedule after receiving more than 17,000 public comments during an initial “scoping” period. The agency in December ordered Enbridge to redo measurement of wetlands that could be damaged from roads and structures for tunnel construction.
“We greatly appreciate the meaningful input received throughout scoping and will use this information to shape studies and continuing consultations throughout development of our draft environmental impact statement,” District Commander Lt. Col. Brett Boyle said.
The slowdown is a setback for a project that Enbridge originally planned to complete as early as next year, spending about $500 million. Mike Fernandez, a senior vice president of the Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta, told The Associated Press the cost has risen but did not have a new estimate. The new timeline could push tunnel completion to 2030.
"It's really, really disappointing,” Fernandez said in an interview ahead of the Corps' announcement, adding that the delay “flies in the face” of the Biden administration's pledge to quicken environmental permitting for infrastructure projects.
“To borrow a phrase from the president when he was running, we want to build back better and sooner,” Fernandez said. “But right now, it appears that the federal government, or at least the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has not gotten that message.”
He said Enbridge remains committed to the tunnel for the underwater segment of Line 5 that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, environmental groups and Native American tribes want shut down.
They contend the nearly 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) section is vulnerable to a rupture. Line 5 moves about 23 million gallons (87 million liters) of oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.
Enbridge insists the nearly 70-year-old dual pipes are in good condition and monitored regularly. But the company agreed in 2018 with Whitmer's predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder, to drill a tunnel that would encase a new pipeline section in concrete.
Many Line 5 critics also oppose the tunnel, even though Whitmer's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy granted a permit. Opponents say it would risk water pollution and promote continued reliance on fossil fuels, which generate planet-warming gases.
The Bay Mills Indian Community, based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, says construction near the straits would harm sensitive wetlands, rare plants and cultural artifacts. Tribal aquatic biologist Brad Wesolek said he raised concerns with the Corps during a September visit to the area and was convinced Enbridge had undercounted wetlands that would be affected.
“It's a very unique site," Wesolek said. “It has plants and animals that are only found in the Great Lakes.”
The shorelines host a plant community called limestone bedrock glade, he said, which the Michigan Natural Features Inventory labels imperiled. The plants include the dwarf lake iris and Houghton's goldenrod, both listed as threatened.
The proposed construction zone has resources of cultural significance, said Whitney Gravelle, the Bay Mills tribal president.
“It's where we went historically for trade,” she said. “It's where we performed ceremony. It's where we would have our fishing camps and our hunting camps.”
Enbridge says its onshore work would damage less than a half-acre of wetlands. But in a Dec. 21 letter, the Army Corps said its September inspection and other evidence showed more work was needed to confirm that.
Fernandez said the Enbridge will conduct another survey but said the initial one was thorough.
The tribe recently asked an administrative law judge to invalidate the state tunnel permit, saying it had relied on faulty wetlands information.
“It needs to be redone or completely thrown away,” said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing Bay Mills.
Enbridge also awaits a ruling from the Michigan Public Service Commission on its request to relocate the underwater pipeline segment. The commission last July requested more information about tunnel engineering and hazards.
“As we continue to delve into this permit process, we're going to find more evidence of why this tunnel should not be built,” Gravelle said.
Fernandez said impeding the tunnel project will only lengthen the time that oil flows through the straits pipes. The company has rejected Whitmer's order to shut down Line 5. Two lawsuits over its future are ongoing.
Pro-tunnel groups criticized the Corps' new schedule.
“Every month the project is delayed pushes this important economic and environmental investment down the line,” said Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.
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