Wisconsin tribe sues for Enbridge Line 5 closure

By: - July 24, 2019 10:43 am

Enbridge, St. Ignace | Susan J. Demas

A Native American tribe in Wisconsin has filed a federal lawsuit seeking the shutdown of the Line 5 oil pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac. 

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed suit on Tuesday against Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns the pipeline, parts of which run through its reservation land on the south shore of Lake Superior. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. 

The tribe says it’s been working through a mediation process with Enbridge and alleges that easements the company had on the land expired in 2013. 

“It’s time to end the imminent threat the company is presenting to our people, our rivers, and Gichi-Gami (Lake Superior),” Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said in a statement. “It’s not only an infringement of our sovereignty, but a burden felt by our people having to engage in the perpetual chase for the next pipeline rupture. It’s time to stop the flow of oil immediately.”

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Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the company is still reviewing the 50-page complaint. 

“Enbridge has been in good faith negotiations with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe regarding these easements since 2013,” the company said in a statement. “The vast majority of Enbridge’s right of way through the Bad River Reservation is covered by either perpetual easements on private land or a 50-year agreement between Enbridge and the Band, which does not expire until 2043.”

Sign supporting Line 5, Escanaba | Susan J. Demas

Enbridge wants to build a tunnel to encase the pipeline underneath the Straits, which could take up to a decade. The 66-year-old pipeline carries about 23 million gallons of oil through the Straits of Mackinac every day and environmentalists and other advocates fear that a devastating rupture of the pipeline is likely. 

The Bad River tribal suit comes just weeks after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed her own lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking the decommissioning of Line 5, as the Advance previously reported. 

Enbridge taking steps on oil pipeline tunnel, Whitmer says state hasn’t signed off

At the same time that Nessel filed her lawsuit, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought to dismiss a separate lawsuit by Enbridge that aims to protect the tunnel proposal and has ordered the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to evaluate whether Enbridge has been in compliance with the 1953 state agreement that allows Line 5 to operate.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about a public safety campaign on water safety, July 26, 2019 | Nick Manes

“While the events in Wisconsin are independent of Michigan, Governor Whitmer remains committed to a solution that protects the Great Lakes, removes the pipelines from the Straits as soon as possible, and provides for the Upper Peninsula’s energy needs,” Whitmer spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis wrote in a statement. “The state is unwilling to indefinitely bear the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes, which nearly happened last April when a ship dragging a 12,000-pound anchor struck the pipeline.”

Environmental groups say that a full decommissioning of Line 5 remains the only way forward to avert the threat of an oil spill. 

“Enbridge, it is clear from its lengthy attempt to delay the Bad River Band from exercising its legal rights, will try and drag out any talks for as long as possible unless they get a deal on their terms,” Sean McBrearty of the Oil and Water Don’t Mix coalition said in a statement. 

“For the Bad River Band, that was six years of unauthorized operation of Line 5 and two years of failed mediation,” McBrearty continued. “Meanwhile, Line 5 threatened the Bad River while Enbridge continued making oil profits. For Michigan, accommodating Enbridge means keeping Line 5 as an unacceptable threat to the Great Lakes and 400 other waterways with potential oil spill damages to the Great Lakes and Michigan in the billions of dollars.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.