Indigenous women leaders say Line 5 reroute project would be cultural, environmental ‘genocide’

By: - May 10, 2022 2:53 pm

“Enbridge eviction” celebration at McGulpin Point Lighthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

Indigenous water protectors from Great Lakes tribes and their supporters are calling on a federal agency to fully review and reject a Line 5 project in northern Wisconsin, which they say would be “an act of cultural genocide” if permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The embattled Line 5 pipeline originates at the tip of northwest Wisconsin and continues for 645 miles into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, under the Straits of Mackinac and out into Canada near Detroit.

Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company that owns the oil infrastructure, is seeking to remove a 12-mile section of Line 5 from the Bad River reservation and replace it with a 41-mile section outside of the reservation.

Though it would be off the reservation itself, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians argues that the new route would still “cut through more than 900 waterways upstream” of their reservation and thereby threaten treaty lands and waters that belong to both them and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Indigenous leaders say the project places the tribes at “massive risk.”

Both are rooted in land directly adjacent to Michigan’s western U.P. area.

“Both the current Line 5 and the proposed Line 5 expansion threaten to irreversibly damage our drinking water, our ecosystems, and manoomin,” the Apr. 27 letter reads.

Manoomin, or wild rice, has long served as an essential part of Anishinaabe cultural and spiritual identity. It is also a major food source and economic staple for tribes.

Running an oil pipeline through major tributaries of the Bad River Watershed “would have severe long-term consequences for the unique ecology of this watershed,” the letter continues. “We consider this an act of genocide.”

The nine Indigenous women leaders co-signing the letter are: Jannan J. Cornstalk, citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB); Rene Ann Goodrich and Aurora Conley of the Bad River Ojibwe; Gwenn Topping and Carolyn Goug’e of the Red Cliff Band; Jaime Arsenault and Dawn Goodwin of the White Earth Ojibwe; Nookomis Debra Topping of Fond du Lac (Nagajiwanaang); and Carrie Chesnik of the Oneida Nation.

All except the Oneida Nation are member tribes of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).

More than 200 endorsing organizations are listed on the letter, including the Sierra Club, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth and Center for Biological Diversity.

Art printing at “Enbridge eviction” celebration, McGulpin Point Lighthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

The letter also points to the concern that construction projects with so-called “man camps” in the area could bring further danger to already vulnerable Indigenous women and children in the area.

Both Goodrich and Topping are members of the Wisconsin Department of Justice MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) Task Force.

“We received a letter submitted by indigenous women leaders in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and appreciate their comments,” said Becky Graser, St. Paul District deputy regulatory division chief for USACE. “As part of our review process, we will take all of the comments received into consideration to inform the final permit decision.”

USACE is one of several permitting agencies that Enbridge needs approval from before undergoing projects like the Wisconsin relocation project and the tunnel-enclosed Line 5 replacement project under the Straits. In June 2021, much to Enbridge’s disappointment, the Army Corps announced it will be conducting a full analysis on the potential environmental impacts of the proposed tunnel project.

The federal environmental impact statement (EIS) is the highest level of environmental review for such a project. It considers a project’s alternatives, cumulative impacts, geographic context and more under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

The tunnel project is currently the only portion of Line 5 slated for the analysis.

Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, had announced the review last summer with an emphasis on ensuring tribal consultation. Pinkham is a citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe rooted in North-Central Idaho and has previously been on record as being against the now-scuttled Dakota Access Pipeline.

In the April letter to USACE, Indigenous leaders ask that Pinkham undertake the same EIS process for the entire pipeline within the agency’s jurisdiction while denying permits for the Wisconsin Line 5 project.

“While Enbridge is being forced to plan new segments of this 69-year-old pipeline, the entire line should be decommissioned. If a Line 5 reroute must be considered, the state DNR’s draft EIS must be rejected as profoundly insufficient, and a comprehensive federal EIS must be conducted,” the letter reads.

“… Given that no comprehensive tribal consultation was done and no EIS was prepared in 1953 or since, we urge the Army Corps of Engineers to properly review Line 5 in its entirety.”

In an email Monday, Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the Bad River Band’s efforts to shut down Line 5 run contrary to the 1977 U.S.-Canada Treaty regarding pipelines. Duffy added that the 41-mile relocation project would be built by a Wisconsin contractor and a “trained union workforce,” with up to 10% of the project workers being Native American.

“Agreement has been reached with 100% of private landowners along the re-route, chosen because it minimizes environmental impacts and protects critical resources. Enbridge will move forward with construction once all necessary permits are received,” Duffy said.

Cornstalk of Michigan’s LTBB said tribes and Indigenous communities need to be part of the process not after the fact, but from the very beginning.

“That’s consultation,” Cornstalk said. “Our very lifeways and cultures hang in the balance as pipelines like Line 5 get rammed through our territories and water.”

“… The Army Corps and [President Joe] Biden administration must put people over profits. Allowing Line 5 to proceed is cultural genocide. The disturbances go deeper than you are hearing. That water is our relative, and we will do whatever it takes to protect our water, our sacred relative.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.