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Enbridge continues tunnel plans, puts drilling vessel in Straits to start core sampling

The lab that is onboard the Highland Eagle where specalists will analyze the core samples from 100 to 200 feet below the lakebed.(Mikenzie Frost)
The lab that is onboard the Highland Eagle where specalists will analyze the core samples from 100 to 200 feet below the lakebed.(Mikenzie Frost)
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STRAITS OF MACKINAC, Mich. (WPBN/WGTU) — The future of the Enbridge Line 5 tunnel project hangs in the balance as the Canadian-energy company and the state of Michigan are embattled in litigation, but the preparation work continues to take place in the event the project gets the green light.

A 220-foot long international drilling vessel docked in Detroit on July 5 after leaving the Irish Sea off the coast of the United Kingdom.

The Highland Eagle, owned by international geo-technical and survey company Fugro, precariously came through locks and cleared the invasive species inspections at Montreal.

The Highland Eagle was commissioned by Enbridge as part of a $40 million commitment by the company to prepare work for the proposed 4-mile tunnel that would be mined and installed approximately 100 feet below the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac.

The vessel comes with a price tag of roughly $17.5 million and will facilitate core samples from the lakebed.

Amber Pastoor, project manager for the Line 5 tunnel and replacement project for Enbridge, said one of the selling points for the vessel was the fact that it can self-stabilize, meaning it does not require an anchor.

“While that drill string is going down, while we are drilling and collecting the rock and soil samples and doing the testing and the holes, to understand the geology of the strait, that vessel is virtually holding itself straight and that’s something you can’t really achieve if you’re relying on an anchored vessel,” she said Wednesday after a tour of the vessel.

Pastoor said the Highland Eagle can hold itself steady within 10 to 13 centimeters, which is critical while the massive diamond-tipped drill is burrowing holes between 100 and 200 feet into the lakebed. Enbridge has state and federal permits to drill 24 boreholes in the Straits with 18 of those being in the deepest parts of the water.

Each borehole is expected to take four days to complete, according to Steve Williams, regional service line manager for Fugro.

The samples will then be brought on board where an air-conditioned laboratory to be examined by geologists and other specialists. The remaining boreholes will be drilled from a barge that’s currently sitting off the shore of St. Ignace.

The massive drill that sits atop the vessel brings up the clippings, along with the actual core samples. Pastoor said all the materials are brought back on board the vessel and are not put back into the water, using a zero-discharg method for drilling.

“Materials that are used are not toxic and general, on other jobs similar to this, they would put those cuttings or they would release that back into the lakes, but that’s just not acceptable in Lake Michigan,” she said.

The vessel is equipped to stay on the water for about 28 days at a time with 38 crew members; three of the members will be Enbridge employees and the rest are a mix of international geologists and marine crew workers.

Drilling the boreholes is expected to wrap up in mid-October, Pastoor said. The data and information about the makeup of the sediment at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac will likely not become public until after the tunnel is fully constructed and operational, if at all, she said. Pastoor also said that there is little known about the lakebed, from a geological standpoint, but that could change once the project is complete.

“When this geo-technical program is done, we’re going to have the story of the history of the Straits,” said Pastoor.

Enbridge is facing an uphill battle for the project after fractured conversations with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer left the future of the tunnel uncertain. That future got even more muddy after Attorney General Dana Nessel issued an opinion in March that said the tunnel project was unconstitutional and then filed a lawsuit to shut Line 5 down as soon as possible on June 27; following through on comments she made at the Mackinac Policy Conference in late May and consistent with her 2018 campaign promise of shutting the controversial pipeline down.

Guy Jarvis, executive vice president of liquid pipelines for Enbridge, said Wednesday that the company has not had conversations with the Whitmer Administration since the lawsuits were filed about finding a path forward with the tunnel agreement, which was legislatively approved in late 2018 and brokered with former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

“We believe that the best solution for Michigan ultimately is for the state to come back and work with us to get the tunnel done as fast as possible and ensure the management of Line 5 in that interim period,” Jarvis said Wednesday in Detroit. “We are focused on the work at hand and developing solutions; we’re always looking for solutions to manage the risk in the Straits in the current operation, we’re not giving up on that.”

Despite the litigation, Jarvis said Enbridge is forging ahead with the tunnel research. He said the company’s timeline is to get all the permits necessary, manufacture special drilling equipment that would be gear specifically toward the type of sediment that is found in the Strait’s lakebed and have the tunnel under construction by 2021 with the new Line 5 pipeline installed in the tunnel sometime in 2024.

“The position of the state has been, they would like to see Line 5 shut down by 2021. There’s no feasible possibility that the tunnel can be completed in that timeline,” Jarvis said. “We think that a timeline such as that just doesn’t make sense because it’s going to disrupt the energy market in Michigan and the surrounding regions.”

Propane from the 66-year-old twin pipeline that is Line 5 is distributed to the Upper Peninsula and south to other regions in the Midwest. It’s been Enbridge’s position that shutting down Line 5 without an alternative plan would have a ripple effect through Michigan and other states that depend on the energy from Enbridge.

The Highland Eagle is scheduled to leave Detroit by Thursday morning and will then be docked in Rogers City.

While Engridge moves forward with the plans, Nessel’s Communications Director Kelly Rossman-McKinney cited Nessel’s lawsuit and opinion that said the project was unconstitutional as reason for the project to stop.

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“While Enbridge obtained state and federal permits to allow the exploratory drilling to test the subsurface conditions where it wants to build a tunnel, that does not mean it has the legal right to actually build and operate a tunnel or new pipeline,” Rossman-McKinney said via email.

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