ST. IGNACE – The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority Board approved the agreements Wednesday to allow construction of a new utility tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac after a public comment period that leaned toward support for the tunnel and the current pipeline.

Board members noted the statute required them to approve the agreement if it met the standards in the law, which their staff attorney found it did.

After some four hours of testimony, including presentations from the administration on the agreement, the board approved the tunnel agreement, an agreement to allow Enbridge rights to use the tunnel and service contracts with independent inspectors, all on 3-0 votes.

“From the beginning of this four-year process, our fundamental goal has been to protect the Great Lakes against an oil spill through a solution we know will work,” Governor Rick Snyder, who signed a third agreement with Enbridge on the operation and eventual removal of Line 5, said in a statement. “Today’s actions will result in the removal of the oil pipeline from the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, maintain critical infrastructure connections between our peninsulas, provide energy security for residents of the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan and create good-paying jobs.”

Enbridge, in a statement, said moving Line 5 to a tunnel would reduce the possibility of an oil spill to almost none.

“The agreements completed this week in partnership with the State of Michigan and the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority reflect Enbridge’s commitment to environmental protection at the Straits,” the company said in a statement. “In fact, Enbridge has already applied for permits to begin taking rock and soil samples at the Straits. The results from this work will provide information that will aid in the design and construction of a tunnel.”

Though there was some question among administration officials whether they had the authority, the board also unanimously approved a resolution calling for the tunnel to be at least 10 feet in diameter. Anthony England, the sole Democrat on the board, argued the agreement as drafted could allow the tunnel to be smaller but that anything smaller would limit access to other utilities.

Robert Reichel, the assistant attorney general assigned to the pipeline and tunnel discussions, said the 10-foot diameter mentioned in the agreement was a guideline, not a maximum or minimum. He said the agreement provides for the tunnel to be the most practical size for construction and for its expected purpose.

Valerie Brader, former head of the Agency on Energy and lead negotiator on the agreement, said she did not read the statute as allowing the board to make any changes to the agreement.

The board had until the end of the year to decide on the agreement but made Wednesday its first meeting and its last for the year. It plans to meet again in April.

The board heard from several people who urged it to at least take more time to consider the proposal but, in a shift from other meetings over the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, it heard from a nearly equal number who urged the board to move forward both with the tunnel and with allowing the pipeline to remain in operation until it is.

Many of those supporting the tunnel and the pipe were Enbridge employees or involved in the oil and gas industry.

“The tunnel will provide additional safeguards and will allow continued energy delivery in the state of Michigan,” Brian Buck, operations manager for Enbridge in Bay City, said. He said Line 5 carries 80 percent of the crude oil produced in the state.

“The Straits of Mackinac is a great place my friends and family have enjoyed my whole life,” Brad Wagner, an Enbridge employee, said. “I’m very happy the company I work for is committed to protecting the Great Lakes.”

Several supporters said with the protections currently in place on the line it would be safe to operate for many years.

Opponents questioned how the line could still be operable given its age, the damage to the coatings and the changes to the lake bottom under it.

Dale Giddings of Cheboygan County said the board’s sole purpose was to shift responsibility for continued operation of the current pipeline. “(The goal is) just to provide cover so that Enbridge can continue to pump oil through Line 5,” he said. “No self-respecting person would want to have anything to do with this tunnel nonsense.”

Mr. Giddings said the provision allowing the line to continue until the tunnel is completed shows the tunnel would never be completed.

“You have been given inadequate time and incomplete or inaccurate information,” Pattie Peak of St. Ignace said of the board. “You’ve been asked to agree that the current pipeline is safe to operate for another decade or so. … That pipeline is no longer what it was designed to be.”

Several opponents objected to the short turnaround between release of the agreement language on Monday and the board’s hearing and decision.

“We also do not believe that this has been a democratic process in the last month,” Mike Ripley, environmental coordinator for the Chippewa/Ottawa Resource Authority, said. “These were behind the scenes agreements between Enbridge and Governor Snyder.”

In addition approving the agreements, the board selected Mike Nystrom as its chair and set its next meeting for April 15.

This story was published by Gongwer News Service.