Traverse City News and Events

Protests Planned Today At Commission Vote On Line 5, Census Resolutions

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 21, 2019

Grand Traverse County commissioners are expected to have to walk through a crowd of protestors this morning (Wednesday) to get to their 8am meeting at the Governmental Center, where they’re slated to vote on contentious resolutions of support for the Enbridge Line 5 tunnel and the inclusion of a citizenship question on the U.S. census.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix, an advocacy group dedicated to shutting down the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines running under the Straits of Mackinac, is hosting the demonstration outside of the Governmental Center at 7:30am. Immediately following the protest, the group is encouraging attendees to go inside and make public comment at the commission meeting. Several other environmental and political groups have also encouraged their members to attend, including FLOW (For Love of Water), Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), the Grand Traverse Democratic Party, Indivisible Traverse City, and Groundwork Center.

Commissioners will vote on the Line 5 resolution – introduced by Commissioner Brad Jewett – after a two-week delay due to two absent board members at the August 7 meeting. At that meeting, nearly two dozen residents spoke in opposition to the resolution, which expresses commission support for Enbridge's proposed $500 million project to replace Line 5 with a pipeline housed in a larger underground tunnel. The proposed resolution urges the state of Michigan "to work with Enbridge to complete the tunnel project as quickly as possible and not disrupt Line 5 service before the tunnel can be completed." It adds that "multiple and extensive inspections and safety tests over the last several years have confirmed the integrity of Line 5" and that the economic consequences "are too great for Line 5 to be shut down before the tunnel replacement can be completed." The resolution concludes by encouraging other Michigan counties to pass similar measures of support.

Commission Chair Rob Hentschel tells The Ticker he believes the tunnel “is a safe compromise made in good faith by Enbridge that’s going to protect the Great Lakes and keep energy flowing.” While he says he’s “open-minded to any new facts” that might emerge to sway his vote today, he will likely support the resolution. “(The oil) needs to get there one way or another,” he says. “In the short term, the products would have to be put on trucks. Maybe in the long term it would be on rail. It would be tearing up our roads, putting out more exhaust…from an environmental perspective, (the tunnel) seems like the best option.”

Environmental groups adamantly oppose that position, supporting Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s legal battle to declare the tunnel project unconstitutional and decommission Line 5. Oil and Water Don’t Mix says the pipelines “cross one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world” and cites Enbridge's safety record, including a Kalamazoo River oil spill in 2010 and 33 spills along Line 5 leaking at least 1.1 million gallons of oil since 1968. The group has accused Enbridge of pouring advertising funds into Michigan – particularly northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula – to try to buy support for the tunnel project, saying county commissioners “are being fooled by Enbridge talking points.”

FLOW Deputy Director Kelly Thayer issued a lengthy statement opposing the resolution, which he read to commissioners at their August 7 meeting. “Why would the current Grand Traverse County board, which – to our knowledge – has never studied or discussed the threat from Line 5, take a leap of faith in supporting a Canadian oil pipeline company’s alternative that diverts attention from the real problem...?” he asked.

Four Republican county commissioners have voted together on a number of resolutions since January, including Hentschel, Jewett, Ron Clous, and Gordie LaPointe. That contingent would be enough to pass the Line 5 measure today, even if opposed by Democrats Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley and Republican Sonny Wheelock, who often votes with Coffia and Hundley. Coffia posted on social media that she is “adamantly opposed (to the resolution) and will vote as such.” Wheelock, meanwhile, was among a majority of county commissioners in 2016 who passed a resolution of support for stopping oil transportation under the Great Lakes, calling for “swift action to shut down Line 5.” In that 4-2 vote, which Clous also supported, the Republican-majority board cited Enbridge’s “shaky track record” and commissioners’ responsibility as Michiganders to “be wise stewards of the waters of our state for generations to come” in opposing Line 5.

Commissioners today are also set to vote on a resolution of support for including a citizenship question on the U.S. census. The resolution was first discussed at the commission's July 17 meeting, when Clous asked staff to draft a resolution to be sent to the federal government supporting President Donald Trump in putting a citizenship question on the census. Commissioner Betsy Coffia noted the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled such a question cannot be included in the 2020 census, and that the next census would therefore not be until 2030 and under a different presidential administration, with different county commissioners. Clous reiterated his desire to have staff bring forward the resolution for a vote, which staff did on August 7. Commissioners agreed to delay a vote on the resolution at that meeting for the same reason they delayed the Line 5 vote, citing a desire to have a full board present.

Some public commenters at the August 7 meeting questioned the rationale behind the resolution, accusing commissioners of political posturing and exhorting them to focus on county instead of national issues. Hentschel, who supports the resolution, says he believes a citizenship question is relevant to local representation in government and says it’s a “stretch to say (a county resolution) won’t have any effect. Maybe it doesn’t, but maybe it does…I think it would add to the conversation,” he says.

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