Native Communities Fight Oil Pipeline in Wisconsin and Michigan

The 70-year-old Line 5 pipeline threatens lives, livelihoods and Great Lakes ecosystems

Perceval Calderwood April 17, 2023

This is part of a Barn Raiser special report on Enbridge oil-and-gas pipelines.

Negotiations continue over the Line 5 oil pipeline, as Canadian energy company Enbridge pursues a reroute in both Wisconsin and Michigan. Native communities in both states have raised concerns about the pipeline’s environmental impacts.

In Wisconsin, the proposed new route would go around the Bad River Tribe’s reservation but remain within the Bad River watershed. The reroute in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan, an important waterway for the Bay Mills Indian Community.

Line 5 has been in operation since 1953 and carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and gas per day. It begins in Superior, Wis., and ends at refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.

Bad River

Enbridge has operated Line 5 for 70 years through the Bad River reservation in Northern Wisconsin. But the easements allowing the pipeline to pass through tribal land expired in 2013, and after years of negotiation the Tribe decided not to renew them.

Bad River sued Enbridge in 2019 demanding that the company shut down and remove Line 5. Enbridge expressed disappointment on its website in the Tribe’s decision to sue “after nearly seven years of good-faith negotiations and formal mediation,” and proposed to reroute part of the line around the reservation. 

Bad River, however, objects that the proposed Line 5 reroute is still within the Bad River watershed. The ongoing court case revolves around the threat of erosion exposing the pipeline and causing a rupture, or breakage in the pipe, spilling oil into the land and waters in and around the Bad River Reservation. Areas under threat include the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs wetlands complex, more than 10,000 acres designated “of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin is the largest wetland in the Great Lakes Basin. (Courtesy Bad River Natural Resources Department)

U.S. District Judge William Conley has acknowledged the the “catastrophic” effects a rupture could have on the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior.

In September 2022, Conley ruled that the Line 5 pipeline was trespassing on Bad River land. This means the Tribe is entitled to financial compensation for Enbridge’s “unjust” operation of the pipeline on reservation lands, Wisconsin Public Radio reports. However, Conley has expressed no inclination to rule in favor of Bad River’s original goal of closing the line entirely. 

Following an order from Conley, the two parties met to devise “[an] appropriate plan to temporarily shut down and purge Line 5 should erosion threaten the safety of the pipeline,” according to Juli Kellner, an Enbridge spokesperson. The Bad River Tribe and Enbridge submitted separate plans for mitigating risk and responding to future threats.

“Enbridge remains open to resolving issues amicably with the Bad River Band,” Kellner said in late January, “and is committed to strengthening our relationship and working cooperatively to address their concerns.”  

No representatives of the Bad River Tribe responded to requests for comment.

Several advocacy organizations have spoken out against Line 5, including the Native-led Line 5 Coalition, the environmental group For Love of Water (FLOW), and Oil and Water Don’t Mix, a campaign endorsed by the Michigan Environmental Council.

“People need to understand how little U.S. citizens benefit from Line 5,” says Paul DeMain, 66, a member of the Oneida nation who lives in Reserve, Wis., on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. He is the current board president of Honor the Earth, the Minnesota-based nonprofit, founded by Winona LaDuke and the Indigo Girls, that has organized against Enbridge’s Line 3, a separate pipeline that crosses Minnesota.

 “Not only is [Line 5] unnecessary,” he says, “it is dangerous because of its age, and that is exactly why Bad River objects to it everywhere, not just on the reservation. The solution is to take it out and shut it down.”

In December, Sierra Club activists attending the 2022 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) in Montreal advocated for shutting down Line 5, to protect both the environment and tribal authority.

The Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter has coordinated community events in the area around the proposed reroute. Last summer, it held potlucks in Ashland, Wis., and the group is hoping to hold more community events this year.

Jadine Sonoda, Campaign Coordinator for the Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter, emphasized the importance of both local and regional community collaboration. 

“This really combines justice, environmental, health and community work,” Sonoda says. “Showing people how this pipeline directly impacts the issues they care about.”

Before the reroute in northern Wisconsin could move forward, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Army Corps of Engineers would need to issue permits. The DNR is currently going through thousands of public comments collected last year responding to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The comments, submitted from Wisconsin and all across the country, demonstrate majority opposition to the reroute and expansion of Line 5.

Bay Mills

In Michigan, the Bay Mills Indian Community also continues to pursue legal action against Enbridge’s proposed new tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan. Bay Mills is concerned about the impact the Line 5 tunnel could have on the waterway and the plants and wildlife that depend on it, including the risk of leakage into groundwater or an explosion in Enbridge’s proposed tunnel. All 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan oppose Line 5.

Bay Mills and their partners at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and environmental nonprofit Earthjustice point to the 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River by Enbridge Line 6B as precedent for the risk of another spill. 

“You don’t have to look far to see the potential impact a devastating oil spill can cause,” states a NARF summary. “In fact, Enbridge was responsible for the largest inland oil spill … which resulted in nearly 1 million gallons of oil being released into Michigan’s waterways.” The spill injured thousands of birds, mammals and reptiles, and parts of the river remained closed to the public for years during cleanup.  

According to Kellner, Enbridge is confident in the line’s future safety, and in January 2022, Enbridge engineer Aaron Dennis testified before the Michigan Public Service Commission that there was only a “one in a million chance” that Line 5 would leak in the tunnel.

In response, Richard B. Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert and affiliate of Earthjustice, argued this February that “the Enbridge witnesses are minimizing the engineering risks of the proposed tunnel” using “misleading … probability values.”

In March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would be delaying its decision on a key permit for Enbridge another year and a half as it continues to sort through public input.

An aerial view of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Bay Mills reservation hugs the shores of Lake Michigan, east of the Straits of Mackinac.

 “Line 5 … is an ever looming threat to our reserve treaty rights that were provided in the 1836 Treaty of Washington,” says Whitney Gravelle, a water protector who in 2021 was elected ogemaa (leader in anishinaabemowin) of Bay Mills Indian Community. That treaty ceded millions of acres of land and water in exchange for reservation lands and hunting and fishing rights.

When her ancestors signed that treaty, Ogemaa Gravelle, 31, explains, “they knew they were protecting an indigenous way of life, and today Line 5 is directly threatening our indigenous way of life.”  “I like to describe the Straits of Mackinac as the heart attack waiting to happen,” she says. “The heart attack that kills the Great Lakes.”

For more on Enbridge pipelines, see our Barn Raiser special report.

A person wearing glasses looks at the camera
Perceval Calderwood

Percy is a writer and archivist based in Duluth, Minn. They are an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

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