Brighton resident Mike Wilczynski is concerned about the multi-million tunnel design plan that he says “lacks” in detail.
This is a three-part series on the importance of environmental protections for Michigan’s residents living around the infamous Line 5 oil pipeline.
MICHIGAN—Mike Wilczynski, of Brighton, is a retired former senior geologist at what was formerly known as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, now EGLE.
He has some concerns with Enbridge Energy’s design plan relating to a proposed $500 million Great Lakes Tunnel Project in the Straits. It will replace and relocate a portion of the Line 5 pipeline.
The company says the project will “reduce the chances of a release from Line 5 into the Straits to near zero.”
“The Great Lakes Tunnel Project is all about reducing any long-term risk and taking the Line 5 pipelines out of the water of the Straits,” said Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy. “This project answers everyone’s concerns and is the right thing for Michigan, providing environmental protection while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region.
“That’s why we are partnering with world-class contractors with vast experience building similar tunnels in similar conditions. We collaborate with leading experts in the underground tunneling industry, including geologists, geotechnical and tunneling engineers.”
In contact with the Michigan Sierra Club, Wilczynski began reading about this tunnel project and had his own apprehensions.
The permit applications “are really lacking a lot of details,” he noted, and “data presented hasn’t been interpreted in a manner I’d expect from a report.”
“They’re not serious with this application, I don’t think they really are,” he continued. “If they really wanted it that bad, they would have been more serious and submit a proper application.”
Wilczynski, who has experience studying clay and mining bentonite, called Enbridge’s design “a nebulous plan” to deal with the geology beneath the Straits.
As the design calls for mud against bedrock, trepidation exists in how 5 million gallons of wastewater could be discharged daily into Lake Michigan per Enbridge’s plan. He said bentonite clay could form a thick drudge, or be dispersed and kill fish by coating gills and stopping breathing.
Bentonite could also change the water temperature by preventing the emitting of light. In a worst-case scenario, he said “it would pretty much destroy the shoreline.”
“This is really bad,” said Wilczynski, who reviewed EGLE permits for a dozen years. “If I was reviewing this permit, I would send it back. I don’t know how serious Enbridge is in this endeavor.”
Project contractors include Jay Dee Contractors, Inc., of Livonia, and the Obayashi Corporation. Arup, an engineering and consulting firm with large-scale infrastructure experience, is working on the design.
An estimated 2 million work hours will be needed to complete this project.
The design is not yet finalized, though Enbridge foresees a tunnel with an internal diameter range between 18 and 21 feet, at a depth no shallower than 60 feet below the lakebed where the tunnel is in soil, and possibly up to 250 feet beneath the lakebed—which the company states will help protect the lake bed from any disturbance.
It will be constructed from the south side of the Straits and travel north, with work on the south side confined to 25 acres owned by Enbridge and on land owned by other utility companies that have easement agreements with Enbridge.
A 115-foot buffer is said to be maintained with the Lake Michigan shoreline.
“We are confident the conditions to build the tunnel are favorable,” Duffy continued. “We spent more than a year studying the geology under the Straits and we are confident this engineering marvel is not only possible but will be a long-term solution for environmental protection and energy security. We are using the same kind of due diligence as the engineers who built the Mackinac Bridge.”
Important Decisions Put on State’s Shoulders
Currently, multiple state agencies are reviewing permit decisions regarding the tunnel project.
EGLE has two permits before it: One for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, in terms of wastewater discharge from construction practices. The second one is related to bottomlands and wetlands protection.
Decisions made on permits regarding NPDES and resources are late November and early December of this year, respectively. EGLE posts a timeline available online to the public.
On June 30 of this year, the Michigan Public Service Commission issued an order stating that Enbridge was required to file an Act 16 application, due to the project involving “important factual, policy and legal issues best resolved through a proceeding that includes discovery, comprehensive testimony and evidence to provide a robust record.”
The current timeline for briefs is July 15, 2021.
EGLE public information officer Nick Assendelft said “it’s premature to comment” because a formal review has not yet been completed. However, he indicated on Oct. 20 that 2,800 public comments were received.
On Oct. 21, EGLE announced that the state of Michigan has retained international civil engineering firm McMillen Jacobs Associates to provide independent technical review and guidance on the proposed tunnel project.
The firm has international technical experience and specialization in the engineering and construction of deep tunnel projects, EGLE said, such as tunneling below water bodies and through complex structures.
It was the lead consultant on the 5-mile-long Bay Tunnel Project beneath San Francisco Bay.
As they review Enbridge’s applications, the firm’s staff will provide advice to EGLE, MPSC and the Michigan Department of Transportation.
In addition to McMillen Jacobs Associates, a review of potential cultural sites will be conducted by the State Historic Preservation Office, in examining Enbridge’s archeological assessment of the proposed tunnel route.
Experts Say Enbridge Designs Don’t Go Far Enough
Duffy said Enbridge is working with industry design companies and builders, with plans reviewed by tunnel experts who work for the state.
“There have been many updates to our planning since our initial feasibility study, and I would encourage anyone interested to look at our recent filings with the state and our permit applications for the latest information on the project,” Duffy said.
However, Wilczynski and another expert, Brian O’Mara, both feel that Enbridge has not presented enough information as part of its alternative analysis and risk assessment—and that the design the company originally proposed is inconsistent with the design being evaluated by state agencies.
O’Mara is a geological engineer from Grosse Pointe Farms who has worked with nearly every major oil company and personally spent “a couple thousand hours” working on underground tunnels.
In his words, “I’ve seen a lot of things go bad, or badly.”
He acknowledged working with Enbridge in the past, knowing contractors, designers and drillers, etc. There’s no issue with the personnel, he stated, but rather with the lack of information presented to complete a review.
A thorough formulation would make it so EGLE has to approve the design, he added.
“The more I looked into it, the more issues I found—which is a little disturbing. … (The design is) not wrong; they just haven’t done enough, or they haven’t communicated it to the agency having to approve it,” O’Mara said.
One aspect causing hesitation relates to the study’s assumption that the tunnel would be dug only into solid bedrock, yet the design also implied the tunnel sitting in soft bedrock, soft silts and clay.
Other concerns include a tunnel-digging machine getting stuck in the Straits, not able to be retrieved, and a “disaster” situation created by a sinkhole under the existing Line 5 pipeline. There is also hesitance with methane in the groundwater, which is highly flammable and could explode and kill humans.
“All those things have implications for the environment,” O’Mara said. “There’s some drinking water issues as well. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but all these aspects have to be considered. … If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
A Push For the Governor to Act, and Fast
David Holtz, communications coordinator for Oil and Water Don’t Mix, said the combination of Line 5 and the tunnel design are part of the same equation.
“Our main laser focus is the fact that this oil pipeline is sitting in the Great Lakes, in the worst possible place for an oil spill and really needs to be dealt with right away,” Holtz said, adding that a replacement line may be seven to 10 years off.
Michigan Sierra Club co-chair Anne Woiwode said she is grateful for experts like O’Mara and Wilczynski, who have stepped forward with testimony riddled in technical details. She said the state doesn’t have an overall understanding of the entire situation, especially EGLE.
Woiwode said stall tactics by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration “worked” and prompted Whitmer to “piece a pathway together to healthy alternatives,” by way of addressing past violations and starting a task force.
Now, she and others want Whitmer to dissolve the 1953 easement that gave Enbridge the authority in the first place to transport oil and gas through the Great Lakes.
At press time Whitmer could not be reached for comment.
“I’m concerned that there is a cost in delay,” she said. “The governor has been unclear in what her intentions are regarding the existing pipeline. … Because there is a potential disaster in the Strait, we need to act as soon as possible.
“My hope is the governor will soon act to uphold her commitment to the election to shut down the pipelines, but we don’t want to see a trade for a poorly thought, poorly executed tunnel.”
On. Oct. 19, the final day EGLE allowed public comments relating to permits for Enbridge’s proposed tunnel, Oil and Water Don’t Mix Campaign Coordinator Sean McBrearty was blunt: “If these permit requests from Enbridge are approved, it would represent a failure of state government on a monumental scale that puts people, communities and the Great Lakes at even greater potential risk than the existing Line 5 oil pipeline.”
Holtz said possibly billions of dollars in damages could result from a spill, potentially detrimental to approximately 700 miles of coastline.
“We believe that the governor has the authority to act to shut that pipeline down, and we want her to do that,” Holtz said.
Biden Environmental Plan Would Aid Michigan Resources
President Donald Trump is for environmental rollbacks, which would create shortcuts for Michigan’s controversial oil pipeline — the same shortcuts that contributed to the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. The projects Trump wants to fast-track, like pipelines and highways, contribute heavily to climate change.
Presidential nominee Joe Biden would work to overcome Trump’s environmental rollbacks if elected. Biden’s plan to boost the local economy with green energy jobs, like building electric vehicles, is in line with Michigan’s latest commitments to address how climate change is impacting everyday families in the community.
Biden is also interested in establishing an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice to elevate better environmental protections in the country.
Biden’s plan includes outlining a bold plan–a Clean Energy Revolution–to address “this grave threat” and lead the world in addressing the climate emergency, according to his website.
“These aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams,” he said in a speech. “These are actionable policies that we can get to work on right away.”
Some of his proposals, according to The Washington Post include recommendations to “dramatically expand solar and wind energy, including the installation of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines.”
Biden’s proposal, according to the article, also says all American-built buses should emit zero greenhouse gases by 2030, and he describes other goals of converting America’s 500,000 school buses, including those running on diesel fuel, to zero emissions. He also wants to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.
This is the final part of the three-part series on the importance of environmental protections for Michigan’s residents living around the infamous Line 5 oil pipeline.
Part 1: ‘I Can See the Devastation’: Michigander Living Near Infamous Oil Pipeline Is Furious
Part 2: The Line 5 Problem: 70-Years-Old and a Ticking Time Bomb
Staff Writer Katelyn Kivel contributed to this report.